The Parable of the Mustard Seed is one of the shorter parables of Jesus. And yet from that seed grows a bush that can reach over nine feet tall; all that complexity and diversity from just the tiniest of beginnings. This is the analogy that Jesus draws between the smallest of our actions that, done with love, can have enormous ramifications. That the smallest of things, the smallest building bricks may construct the Kingdom of God. But to what extent are we making a difference?
A former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Secretary-General of the World Trade Organization, Mike Moore, once wrote in his autobiography, “It is wrong to be right too soon.” He was referring to a human tendency to be resistant to new ideas, especially ideas that might lead to change. Whilst it does help everyday coping, it can also seriously get in the way of long-term learning and growth. Opinions can just sit there, day after day, year after year, never overwritten, never challenged, never updated.
Trinity Sunday, is a time to reflect upon the nature, the character, and the challenge of the Trinity. Something unique to the Christian faith, often misunderstood, even by Christians, as we seek to grasp that which is beyond reach, to comprehend that which is above all a mystery – using words and images to try to understand, but knowing that if we take them too literally, they will obscure all understanding.
Luke’s main point in Acts is not the special effects or even the drama of the gift of tongues, but spiritual transformation. Far from being someone who they could only experience as a memory, Jesus, the spirit of Jesus, came alive to them, in that moment, vividly, overwhelmingly. For the heart of Pentecost for us is not some rather strange past events, it is not just an odd story about something that once happened long ago. What is significant, of prime importance for us, is that Pentecost takes place within our own hearts – that change that comes upon us.
Today, In John’s Gospel, we encounter a Jesus rather different from the Jesus depicted in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew or Luke. Here is John writing around AD 100, almost seventy years after Jesus died, informed by who Jesus had been, but now also deeply influenced by what he had become for the members of the church at the end of the first century. What are we to make of this Jesus, and the Jesus of the previous Gospels, and the Jesus we might encounter today. To pick up on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, does the act of observation change that which is being observed?
Today we reflect upon the nature of love, that the narrative, the essential story of the Bible is that of humanity wrestling with our darker side, which sometimes prevails, for a while, but that we are always called back to a pilgrimage towards forgiveness, compassion and love. The gift of God is love and the commandment of God is love – they are one and the same.
Today we reflect upon the tension between the care and attention that we rightly need to expend on ourselves and our church community, the internal spiritual work that is required, the tending and pruning of the vine as it were – contrasted with the work that we should do beyond the boundaries of the church, outside the vineyard, where there is suffering and enormous need. To what extent should the church look within, but also look around us – at the cares and sufferings of the world. And also to reflect both on what we have to teach the world, and what the world has to teach us.
Today we reflect upon what is means to be a shepherd, in the sense of caring for and defending those entrusted to one’s care. Not that we are seen as mindless sheep, but as fellow travellers and pilgrims along a path that is long and difficult, strewn with obstacles; a journey that will change us, if we are prepared to be changed.
Today we reflect upon resurrection, its meaning and significance in the time of Jesus and in our own time. We look at the different between old thoughts and new thinking, and we consider what new life might look like today, for the way we live and our sense of self.
Despite the epithet ‘doubting Thomas’, he was in reality prolific and heroic, a towering man of faith. He went on to be the only apostle to preach the faith far beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. He reminds us that sometimes it is the struggle with faith, it is in the moments of anguish and questioning when our faith, paradoxically is often at it strongest. We can see our own doubts, great or small, not as objects of shame, to be hidden and suppressed behind the mask, but as spurs to our spiritual growth and rebirth.
We gather as a Diocese to celebrate the new life and new hope of Easter. Our church buildings must remain closed but we still have each other, we can come together like this, we can pray for each other, talk to each other and hold each other in our thoughts and our hearts, we can continue to be the church together and to hope for better days to come – as surely they will.
After all the message of Easter is renewed life and new hope.
The Passion is almost over but not yet, Jesus is almost risen, but not yet. The Easter fire is lit outside the church as evening falls, a flame to light the Paschal Candle – a tradition credited to St Patrick. We start this service with the church unlit, illuminated only by the light of the Paschal Candle coming into our midst, slowly revealing its presence among us, symbolising the realisation, only gradually dawning upon the disciples, that Christ is the light of the world.
God does not insist on payment of a debt. Whereas we may equate crime with punishment, and our hearts scream out for vengeance, the heart of God offers forgiveness, acceptance and healing. God is surely above the anger, retribution and violence of the world that we have fashioned for ourselves. Rather he attacks the very source of wrong doing, in the corruption of the human heart and begins the healing there.
The Office of Tenebrae took place in ancient times during the Great Triduum, the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday which brings Holy Week to an end. At the climax of the Office is the recitation of part of the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. The recitation is accompanied by the gradual extinguishing of the 15 Tenebrae candles which represents the overwhelming sense of darkness, defeat and desolation felt by the disciples in the aftermath of the crucifixion.
We celebrate Palm Sunday – a story of triumph, but a triumph that foreshadows terrible suffering to come. As we live through these difficult days, we might take time to reflect on how the Holy Week journey now speaks to us in new and different ways: of joy and sadness, of hope and despair, laughter and tears, life and death, so often intermingled, the one interwoven with the other, inseparable and indivisible. So it is with life, so too with our journey of faith over the next few days.
Today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday, although that it is not as exciting or as racy as it sounds. But it is a time to think very carefully about the kind of God that we say we believe in, and what that says about us, our own priorities and prejudices. Supposedly we worship what we esteem, what we value, what we hold to be the highest, the most holy and the finest – or do we? Passion Sunday is a good time to ask that question.
Today as we keep Mothering Sunday, we are challenged to reflect upon not only the bond between a mother and a child but the extent to which the self-sacrifice, the pain and the devotion that mothers must go through in order to bring a new life into the world, gives them some greater insight into the respect, compassion and reverence with which we should all seek to treat one another. A mother knows what new life costs, they might also teach us something about the value and the sanctity of life.
We hear the story of Jesus overturning trading stalls and tables, berating and ejecting tradesmen from the Jerusalem Temple, supposedly the holiest of places, but clearly also for some a place of business and profit. But the story has greater relevance than just an occasion where Jesus railed against particular people at a particular time. It also causes us to question the extent to which we as Christians should support or be wary of the profit motive, and whether the economic systems we have devised for ourselves are really just and equitable, and what role they might play in advancing or hindering the Kingdom.
Jesus’s determination to stay true to the road that lay before him, true to his Father’s will, was to lead him to the Way of the Cross. On that journey he calls upon us to bear our own cross, for such is the way of Christian discipleship. But the truth is that we don’t like anything that looks like a cross, problems, troubles, sickness; we spend our entire lives trying to avoid them. In that, we are very much like Peter.
One of the problems in church life is that we do eventually take on new ideas, but we somehow cannot let go of the old.
Particularly at Lent there is the tendency of church teaching, especially in the liturgy and in hymns to concentrate on human sin and error from only one perspective – the tendency of the season to view the complexity and vulnerability of the human condition through just one simplistic and erroneous lens. For far too long, the western church has tended to see human failings in terms of crime and punishment.
We like to form a pattern of the world, a mental map of how things work, why they happen, an explanation of the way the world works, and why. We tend to seek explanations for new things according to the old ways, we like to fit things into an existing pattern. Generally it can serve us well. But sometimes it can serve us ill. As Jesus says earlier in Mark’s Gospel: “no one puts new wine into old wineskins”. Today, some elements of church life and teaching are now holding us back, limiting our ability to learn and progress. We can, of course, be tempted to hold onto it all; it’s familiar and comfortable, but like the old wine skin it cannot contain, it cannot hold the new, lest it burst apart.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke start with the genealogy of Jesus’s ancestors and his claim to a worldly royal heritage, or the story of his birth and his family – but for John this is already too late in the sequence of events. For whilst at the start of the Gospel of John we encounter Jesus already as a young man, commencing his ministry with a ritual baptism by John the Baptist; first John is at pains to set Jesus in his cosmic context. Not just as a person born into time, but as a reality which existed before all time.
In the temple an old man waits. Tired, near the end of his days, prepared for his dying, but waiting nevertheless. Utterly convinced that his eyes will not close for the last time, before he sees the promised Messiah, the saviour of his and all people. Outside a family prepares to enter. They are humble and poor, the sacrifice they are about to make is an allowance for those of few means, otherwise they would be expected to bring a lamb and turtledoves. But like the old man, they too are devout. All the rituals have been observed, their poverty does not prevent them from observing the pious demands of their faith. And so an ending and a beginning, as so often in life.
Jesus approaches some young men, in the middle of their work, at a critical point in their work and calls them to drop what they are doing, straight way, and to follow him to an uncertain and precarious future. Forget everything else, drop everything now, don’t look back, don’t prevaricate, don’t set pre-conditions, but follow me now. One might well ask is that the message of today’s gospel, is this really what I am being asked to do? To forget job, home, family, commitments, all other duties for my faith?
In the gospel reading we have this rather odd encounter between Jesus and Nathanael. As miracles go it doesn’t seem a big one. But the words cannot truly capture what is really going on – the personal encounter – the fact that in the moment Nathaniel meets Jesus, he feels something that he has never felt before, but had yearned for. Something that we all, in our own way, long for.
(Previously published in the Clare Champion) I wonder if you remember a scene from the 1970’s TV series ‘Brideshead revisited’ where Julia is reflecting on her failed marriage to Rex Mottram; a man of prodigious money-making powers but of utterly stunted spiritual...
(First published in the Clare Champion) Previously I have written about holiness and how it may be found in surprising places; in the beating heart of a scruffy cross-breed dog who knows the saving power of love, but who admittedly still bears significant malice...
Luke tells a good and powerful story. If he were alive today he would be a movie-maker, telling his story in the modern way. And like a cinema film, Luke is telling several stories at once. Not necessarily all drawn from the same actual event, but from many events that happened over a longer period of time. But he combines them with consummate skill into one narrative, one dramatic happening in order that we might learn and understand – he is less concerned with exact factual accuracy that he is with us taking Jesus’s example and seeking to follow it in our own lives and communities. Whatever the future of Christianity holds, and there will be great surprises along the way, it will have to teach people how to believe and live and not dwell simply on what to believe.
The story about the three Wise Men, sometimes known as Kings, sometimes called the Magi, is contained only in the Gospel of Matthew. Whether it really happened in the way that Matthew describes is not the point. The ancient people were quite relaxed about real events being mixed up with ancient legends – not to obscure the truth, but to bring it out, to make it real. The Three Kings, and the Shepherds, serve as symbols that all of us, great and small, the rich and powerful, poor and vulnerable, young and old, east, west, north and south are called to hold in our hearts another king, but a king of humility, of compassion, of justice, of mercy and of self-giving love.
In his gospel, Luke (and similarly Matthew) is saying that God, that the divine, that transcending and healing love is to be found in us – for Luke, true dignity, true holiness, is to be found in the simplest of things, the least exalted of things. That God, that the divine, that transcending love is to be found in all of us – not in the trappings of social status or worldly power, or those who wield it merely because they desire power over others.
The challenge of Christmas, the challenge of the Christ-child lying in a roughly hewn animal feeding trough, is to re-discover the joy and wonder of life. To explore its simple beauties, its transcendent joys, its moments of sheer poetry and surprise, sometimes fleeting, sometimes in the smallest of things.
Christmas Miscellany is a collection of carols, prayers, reflections and music gathered from the churches of the Catholic Diocese of Killaloe and the Church of Ireland Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe, and hosted and edited at St Columba’s Church, Ennis. It is particularly heartwarming to reflect that, at this time of Covid, the reaction of churches has been to collaborate and unite in a shared programme of celebration and thanksgiving. In time we will find that Covid 19, much as we deplore it, has taught us many things. Not least among those lessons will be the knowledge that what unites us, what brings us together, what we share, what we love, what holds us together, is so much more than what divides us.
Our world would listen to a church that with humility but also with resolve and with wisdom, pointed us to a way of living, a way of loving, a way of being fully alive, fully human, fully at one with the God who made us and who speaks daily into the wilderness of our own hearts, if we would but listen. We are not that church. We are not that people. Yet. But we could be.
Jesus instead wants us to be whole rather than religious, he calls upon us to be loving rather than moralistic and self-righteous, to be inclusive rather than exclusive and divisive, to live life abundantly rather than be constrained and withered by guilt and shame and failure to follow impossible rules. It was this freedom, this emancipation that caused people to seek out the baptism of John, and it was this experience of limitless and indiscriminate love that compelled the multitudes to Jesus’ side and made them hang upon his words. This must be the task of the church of the future. To preach the gospel that promises us our release from captivity, from the chains that bind us and to discover the liberty, at last, to realize our full potential, our full dignity, our fullest and truest humanity.
We commence our journey through these days of Advent, leading to a destination that is not so much a finish line as it is a starting point, not so much a goal, as a waypoint on our Christian journey. A new beginning, but also a continuation. But do we need to continue the reactions and fears of the past in our own spiritual lives and our own reading of scripture? Perhaps we might understand the words of Jesus in a less literal but also more ‘revealing’ way. Advent is a good time to ask those questions…. our entire life long is the time to answer them.
Christ is a strange sort of King. By worldly reckoning kings should be dripping in jewels, living in enormous palaces with hot and cold running servants. Privileged, pampered and powerful. But the Kingship of Christ is not of this world, and not of such indulgent and transient standards. Indeed, Christianity itself cannot be judged by the corrupt and superficial measures that our society employs. For the Gospel of Christ, the Kingship of Christ turns the world upside down.
As Christians we are not called to be curators and our faith is not to be locked in a museum. Our faith is not a refuge or hiding place, or a port in a storm, but a source of challenge, of renewed energy and the courage to imagine and to create a better world. Our faith must live and grow and change and prosper – we must leave our world and our faith a little better for them having passed through our hands, for one day we too will be asked to make an account of what kind of stewards we have been.
In this service we make an act of commemoration but not celebration; we hold in our prayers those who have died and suffered in two world wars, in countless regional conflicts and in peace-keeping duties around the world. We mourn their loss and their suffering; the failure of politics and diplomacy that led to their sacrifice on the altar of human pride, obstinacy and indifference, and we also confess the darkness in our own hearts that all too often gives way to anger and seeks retribution. We pray that humanity may, before it is too late, consign war to the sins of history, and instead walk the ways of conciliation and peace.
At ‘All Saints’ we commemmorate those who the Church has held up to us through long years of tradition and prayer as somehow having an exceptional degree of holiness, sanctity, and virtue. Some of course are legends, myths of the Christian tradition, but many were real people, who have lived and hoped and dreamed, laughed and cried, loved and lost. They might also have been selfish, like us, sinful and imperfect like us, very very human, like us. But there was something. A spark – something compelling that spoke of hope, of forgiveness of peace. At this time of year we also commemorate ‘All Soul’s’ – those who were not particularly famous, nor are they generally held as examples to many but we remember those who are so inextricably linked with us that they may well have been amongst the most important influences in our lives.
Jesus issued the two great commandments: that we should love God with all our hearts and we should love our neighbours as ourselves – on these two hang all the law and the prophets. In other words, this is it, the Christian faith pared down to the absolute essentials. Such simple sentences to say and to remember, and yet how difficult to actually live up to. Moreover, before we even start, what does it mean to love God, and quite what is entailed by loving our neighbour? What do we mean by God, and who do we mean by neighbour?
Supermarkets and the efficiency of the international trade in foodstuffs, mean that our tables and fridges groan under the weight of delicious fresh food whenever and from wherever we want. But a casualty of that surplus has been our keeping of Harvest. The older of those among us will remember when the Harvest Festivals of the past were a much more important part of local and church life. But much of that has gone, with multiple harvests, products now available throughout the year, and if the harvest is poor then the supermarkets can always import. In this way many people, especially in towns and cities, can increasingly feel disconnected from the land and from our farmers and farms. Thankfully here in western County Clare, our farmers and our farms are still close and dear to us.
In Matthew’s gospel the story of the wedding banquet is not really about a social event, but is an analogy of the the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom does not happen by itself, but through the dedicated work of its people. To play our part in the creation of the Kingdom, we need to imagine what God’s rule and justice might look like and then seek to live according to that way and not the ways of the world that surrounds us. As Mahatma Ghandi once said ‘Be the change you would like to see in the world’. He also reminded us that “Whatever you do will be insufficient, but it is very important that you do it.”
Jesus tells us a parable of the vineyard, its owner and the faithless and wicked tenants. On the face of it the story seems fairly simple, about greed, betrayal and murder, but this is about far more than property disputes between a landowner and some ruthless tenants. For Jesus’s listeners the parable struck at the very core of what it meant to be Jewish, what the prophets should mean to them and how to build a relationship with God. For Christians since that time the story has all too often been misinterpreted and warped, with disastrous consequences for Jews and Christians alike. But there is something profound, uplifting and emancipating here – if we listen carefully.
The readings today present a challenge to all of us – perhaps especially to those who feel overly secure and established in our church attendance and dare I say it – perhaps a little too confident in our faith or at least taking it too much for granted. We are warned that whilst we may engage in the outward forms of religion, whilst our faith may show on the outside, we need to ask ourselves how much we have been changed, converted on the inside? How much of our life, how many of our decisions and our choices are taken because of our faith rather than despite it? Might it not be that there are those who may be judged on the surface to be less worthy, are in the eyes of God closer to his ways, closer to the paths of his son than we by comparison chose to follow. It is a question from the very beginnings of the Jewish faith, long before Christ came into the world and it continues to challenge us as we seek to follow in his ways.
It is all too easy in our daily strivings, in our aspirations and the enjoyment of what we are and what we have – to leave God out of the equation. To somehow think that our life is somehow in a separate existence, rather like the labourer’s in the vineyard – in a world of exchange and negotiation, of worldly concerns and worldly solutions. Where we owe everything to our own efforts, perhaps a bit of luck and good or bad genes and to what we have been able to wrestle away from an impersonal world of work. But that is to forget, as the eminent American protestant theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich said, that God is the very ‘ground of our being’.
Forgiveness is a much mis-understood notion. All too often Christians can be accused of being a naïvely misguided patsy if they advocate forgiveness, or hypocrites if they display any anger. On the one hand idealistic, unrealistic and culpably weak and on the other hand unwilling to live the gospel they profess. So where are we to find some sense of balance, and the true virtue of which Jesus speaks?
(First appeared in Clare Champion, Friday, August 14, 2020) Sometimes you can be quite wrong and at the same time absolutely right; however in today’s digital world we seem to be so obsessed with ‘facts’ that we can find it hard to accept that many profound realities...
(First appeared in Clare Champion, Friday, July 17, 2020) The holy places of the world are not by any means perfect. They can be highly compromised, chaotic, corrupt; a place to fleece pilgrims and purvey artefacts of dubious authenticity. They can even at times be...
The essence of prayer is not asking but offering, not self-seeking but self-dedication. That is not to say that our own personal griefs and doubts and fears should not be placed before God, quite naturally if we have embarked on a conversation then all manner of concerns will rightfully crop up. What we do know, and this relates to the experience of any who have truly been through the wonderful highs and the most terrible lows of human life, is that in the last resort we pray because we must, because the needs and yearnings of our hearts cannot be hidden away or repressed without damaging the very core of our human natures.
Our cross may be one of drama and obvious pain, or it may be a burden borne quietly and without complaint over many years. It may be one big task or many smaller ones. It may be presented suddenly as a clear choice, or we may look back and realize that is what we have been carrying all along. We may feel that it is something thrust upon us or something we have chosen to do. But of one thing we can be sure, all Christians, all disciples of Christ have a cross of some kind to bear.
A lot of people have said a lot of different things about Jesus, probably the man about whom more is written than any other in history. But in all that clamour, in all the debate, in all the speculation and claim and counter-claim across time, and across different cultures and creeds – the vital question he asks of each of us is – ‘Who do you say that I am?’. The answer says as much about ourselvesves, as it does about Jesus. Some questions are defining, some answers decide how we live the rest of our lives.
In the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman did her challenge actually teach the teacher? Did the ‘dog’ teach the master? Anyone who has taught will tell you that we can learn, as much as we impart, from those whom we teach. It’s certainly an intriguing thought that Jesus may have been caught unawares and his thinking changed by her challenge, that she brought him up short and reminded him of the true implications of his own teaching and that of Isaiah, to which he referred so often. And her rebuke still calls to us today.