25 May 2008

Stewards of God’s mysteries

Saint Matthew’s Church, Irishtown: first built for Dublin Corproation in 1704-1706, and once known as Saint Matthew’s Royal Chapel.

Patrick Comerford

The First Sunday after Trinity: Isaiah 49: 8-16a; Psalm 131; I Corinthians 4: 1-5; Matthew 6: 24-34.

May all we think say and do be to the Glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Your rector, Ted Ardis, and Hilary are both away on retreat this weekend, and so I’m grateful to them both for the opportunity to return to this parish today. I remember your very warm welcome a few years ago, when I was in full-time mission work, and it is good to be back again this morning.

Since my last visit, I have moved to full-time work at the Church of Ireland Theological College, where I am the Director of Spiritual Formation.

The students at the theological college are preparing for ordination to full-time ministry in the Church of Ireland. The ordinations begin in the next few days, with the third year students being ordained to the diaconate, and last year’s graduates being ordained over the next few weeks to the priesthood.

Some of those students will spend a few days away on retreat, away from all their present anxieties, as they spend quiet time in prayer and reflection with their bishops in the days immediately before or after their ordination.

I’m sure that, like Hilary and Ted, during those quiet days they will have time to focus on those words of the Apostle Paul in this morning’s Epistle reading: to think of themselves as “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.”

Those who commit themselves to ordained ministry are committing themselves to an awesome and sacred task. And in this morning’s reading Paul warns those in ministry not to be too quick to rush to judgment or to rely too much on our own strengths and skills.

The real task of those who are ordained is summed up very succinctly in that description of us as “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.”

But our reading from the Prophet Isaiah also reminds us of the task all of us share in the ministry and mission of the whole Church: At the heart of the mission and ministry of the Church is the call to proclaim release to captives, to feed the hungry, to quench those who thirst, to comfort those who suffer. It is reminder to us all that God does not neglect or forget our needs.

The time that is spent on retreat is not time wasted or spent idly. Time like that, to be with God, and for God to be with us, is necessary for us all. Not just for your rector or for ordinands, but for all of us. Rather than taking us out of the world, time on retreat re-equips us, re-charges us, re-empowers us as servants of Christ, as stewards of the mysteries of God, as heralds of the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes it is very difficult for us to give ourselves time to be with God. But how much time do you spend with the person or people you love the most?

One student told me recently of how in the time spent travelling between the theological college in Churchtown and Trinity College Dublin in the city centre, he regularly takes time out to have a coffee with God: no newspaper, no books, no other company. He just sits there with his coffee and takes time out with God.

But when we are most under pressure, when other people are making their greatest demands on us, it is easy to forego time spent in retreat, time spent in worship, time spent in prayer, time spent attending to the sacred mysteries, time just for me and God.

If we give time and attention to our spiritual formation – no matter how new to faith or how mature in the faith we are – we catch ourselves wondering whether others will think we are being indulgent, whether we are treating ourselves to spiritual luxuries when there are so many other pressing demands on our time and on our energies.

With all their worries and troubles at the moment, as they sit their exams, many of the students are finding these two weeks tough. And with those demands on their time and energy, they understand only too well those words of Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Today’s troubles, with its exams and anxieties, are enough for them to deal with, without worrying about tomorrow’s parish placements or future paths in the ministry and in Church life. They need to keep their eyes on the ball: too much anxiety about tomorrow will detract from the task in hand today.

And yet, from the very beginning of setting out on the path towards ordination, those students in a very real way are striving first for the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness. And so their hope, their faith, their love allows them to imagine that all those other things we worry about – food, drink, clothes, housing – are of secondary importance. They trust that the church, the dioceses and the parishes, with God’s grace, will look after them and their families in the days and years ahead.

However, I sometimes think that these sayings of Jesus are too easy to turn on their head for too many of us.

It’s too easy when life is good, when the economy is booming, when money is plentiful, to say to ourselves, “Let’s not worry about tomorrow. Let’s live today for today.”

You can’t afford to take that attitude – an attitude of not worrying about food, clothes or shelter tomorrow – if you are among the two-thirds of the world’s population living in poverty, if you are one of the 16,000 children who will die today, not because of disease or illness, but because of hunger. In a country where weight-loss is a major profit-making business, we may not care for tomorrow. But there is no tomorrow for the one child who dies every five seconds today because of hunger.

Because we haven’t taken care of the world today, because we haven’t faced up to the fact that Jesus points to in our Gospel reading, that “today’s trouble is enough for today,” we have created so many troubles for our tomorrows. If we looked after those children’s needs today, what fewer worries we would have tomorrow.

Excessive borrowing when interest rates were low, a preference for lower taxes rather than spending on hospitals, health care and on eradicating poverty when the government’s coffers were full, have created problems for tomorrow.

Our failure throughout the rich world, when we had the money, to eradicate those factors that create poverty that could be eradicated when we had the money – eliminating malaria, providing cheap drugs for those who are HIV positive or with AIDS, taking clear stands against racism, oppression and discrimination – because we didn’t respect today’s trouble as being enough for today, we have created greater problems for tomorrow.

When we reduce our worries today to the point of not caring about other people’s tomorrows, we fail to seek first both the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. But if we make the Kingdom of God our priority, then we will want to be signs, sacraments, icons of that kingdom, seek ways of being examples of God’s righteousness, expressed in those visionary ideals of the Prophet Isaiah.

When our students go out into their parishes, into the Church, they also go out into the world. Their ministry and mission is not just about caring for their parishes today, but pointing to the faith and hope we have in the kingdom of God.

If, in their pastoral care, they neglect the poor, fail to visit the sick, fail to bring comfort to the prisoner, the lonely and the hopeless, they will be neglecting the great charge that has been committed to them as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

But when they ask why people are poor, why they are on trolleys in crowded A&E units or are left on lengthy waiting lists in our hospitals, when they ask why we cannot provide sufficient public housing for the poor or why we treat immigrants and asylum seekers so badly, will they still be supported by the Church in their ministry and mission? Will they be welcomed for pointing prophetically to the Kingdom of God, for seeking God’s righteousness?

Like Hilary and Ted, they will find their pre-ordination and post-ordination retreats time to be alone with God, time to be reminded of the great task that is entrusted to them, time to think about the sufficiency of the worries of today. And it will be time too remind to themselves of the need to give priority to the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.

In seeking these priorities, they will need to rely on the prayerful and active support of the whole Church. For these are priorities that should be the values of the whole Church, for all of us, both clergy and laity. Our worries for today should be sufficient for today, but they should reflect our values for tomorrow – values that symbolise the Kingdom of God and that begin to unfold his righteousness.

And now, may all praise, honour and glory be to the eternal Trinity, God Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached on Sunday 25 May 2008 at Morning Prayer in Saint Mary's Church, Donnybrook, and at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Matthew's Church, Irishtown, Dublin


Unknown said...

any of the new recruits (upcoming ordinations) from the new communities ie immigrants or ethnic minorities? i would be interested in speaking with any of these if they would be willing to have a short interview...we are a small weekly publication catering to the multicultural Ireland. Thank you...Sandy Hazel at Metro Eireann.

Patrick Comerford said...

Not this year Sandy Hazel. But do you know there is one Nigerian priest working in the Church of Ireland in Dublin, and he makes a good story. Call me at the Church of Ireland Theological College (in the directory) and I'll talk to you about this.

Best wishes, Patrick