02 December 2009

Drowning in a sea of tears

An icon of the Advent or the Second Coming of Christ

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 2 December 2009

5 p.m.: The Community Eucharist

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25: 1-9; I Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We had a very comforting service in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last Sunday afternoon, with the Advent Procession. The cathedral was slowly lit up with candles at different points as the Advent readings were read from different points in the cathedral.

It was a reminder of our need to – our call to – take the light of the Gospel into the darkness of the world. But so often this is more of a challenging than a comforting call.

I know some of you were in the cathedral on Sunday afternoon. But how many of you had the more challenging task of preaching on Sunday morning … on the readings we are using this evening, the readings for the First Sunday of Advent?

These are not very comforting words for people who are not regular churchgoers and who are drifting back to Church at the moment for the comforts and cosiness of Christmas, with carols, and the holly, and the Sunday school nativity plays, and the mulled wine, and the cribs, and the advent wrath.

It’s nice to think of the coming of Christ as some precious, cuddly gift from a God the Father who is more akin to a benign Santa Claus in the sky, given as the centrepiece for a shop-front crib.

It’s much more difficult, for many, to think during the Advent season about the coming of Christ in the way his advent is presented in our Gospel reading this evening – to think of it in those dramatic apocalyptic terms of signs in the sun, moon and stars, distress among the nations of the earth, with everyone confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves, and people fainting from fear and foreboding.

If you were listening to this Gospel reading last Sunday in Church in Ballinasloe or Ardrahan, or Cork, and your home had been flooded for a week or more, you would find it very difficult indeed to find any good news in the prospect of your world being confused by the roaring of the waters – not if the ground floor of your new home or your small shop was under three feet of water, and you are not covered by insurance.

As you try to keep your head above water, physically and financially, how can some people expect to find hope in circumstances such as these in this Advent? And how would you bring them hope?

But there are so many other seas and waters that people are drowning in at the moment, without any signs of hope.

I think of all the tears that must have been shed, tears enough to fill many lakes and to flood out many family homes as a response to the horrific child abuse that we have heard about in the Murphy Report in the past week.

There are the tears of the victims, whose stories are so horrific that I am not going to cite any one of them this evening.

These are tears wept not just in the past. The victims continue to drown in their woes and their sorrows to this day. Some have even been driven to despair to the point that even as adults they could not cope with the memories and have died by suicide.

How does someone cope with the loss of childhood and the loss of innocence?

How does a family cope with feelings of trust betrayed? Feelings of inadequacy and failure when it came to protecting those they should have been nurturing, cherishing and protecting.

One of the first baptisms I was involved in after ordination was with a child whose father wanted to know could I drop the questions in the rite that ask: “Do you reject the devil and all proud rebellion against God? Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?”

He thought they were superstitious and old-fashioned questions.

But when children’s lives are destroyed, when you see the heart-break of those children, those former children, their parents, their families, their loved ones, you know there is nothing old-fashioned or superstitious in facing up to reality of the devil, proud rebellion, deceit, corruption and evil.

How do we cope with the loss of faith in thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who had once been asked to and had readily placed unquestioning trust in their Church?

These were not simple people. These were good people. And their goodness has been trampled on, stolen from them, drowned in the seas of their tears and sorrows.

Church attendance is dropping rapidly. There is a crisis of confidence in authority – all sorts and shapes of authority – in Ireland today. People no longer have faith in our politicians, in our banking and financial system; the collapse in the property market means they also know that there no linger is such a thing as something that is “as safe as houses.”

And the crisis facing the Roman Catholic Church today is a crisis that faces not just one tradition in the Church but that will rock the confidence people once had in all the traditions of the Church.

As one caller to a phone-in show said: “A plague on all their houses!”

This is not an opportunity for the Church of Ireland. This is a time for us to weep in the Church of Ireland. People are going to have their ears closed to the Word of God, their mouths shut to the sacrament, their eyes closed to Christ … and they won’t care who ministers, who proclaims and preaches, who shepherds and pastors.

And how will you cope with the tears and sorrows of your colleagues in the ministry?

I hear many people saying things such as: “I know there are many good priests in the Roman Catholic Church.” But this is not fair. It is not far because it is an under-estimate. In other words, it is damning by feint praise.

The truth is that the overwhelming majority of priests in Roman Catholic Church are good priests. And in their lonely solitude at night they must be drowning in seas of sorrows and in their tears as they realise how day after day, each day, they are bearing the blame that ought to be shouldered by a few, but who have been protected, in the past and sometimes even in the present, by some bishops and even by some in the Vatican.

Who can they turn to bear their grief, to share their sorrow, to listen to their woes, to show their tears?

I hope they can turn to their colleagues in the other traditions in the Church, that they will find listening ears and sympathetic hearts among their colleagues who are deacons, priests and bishops in the Church of Ireland.

In some cases they are not being provided with the leadership they need and they deserve. A bishop should not cling onto office on the basis of some opinion poll, some X-Factor vote, some popularity contest among his clergy and their parishioners.

A bishop must be a focus of unity.

Sometimes bishops make mistakes. We all make mistakes. We all make administrative mistakes. Administrative mistakes should not be a cause of resignation for anyone. After all there is a popular saying, “It could happen to a bishop.”

But mistakes based on poor moral judgment, on low moral standards must be a cause of resignation. If a bishop does not expect high – not necessarily the highest, but certainly very high – moral standards from his priests, then he is not just negligent of his office, but he can no longer be the focus of unity that is at the heart of the primary ministry of a bishop.

I have the highest respect for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Not just because he preached here in this chapel; not just because he is the brother of a very good friend; not just because I know he has a wonderful working relationship with my own archbishop. But because he is willing to provide moral leadership, and to provide it even when he has to take tough decisions.

You will have to take tough decisions throughout all of your ministry. I hope they are not of the magnitude that many Church leaders are facing this Advent.

Immediately after your ordination as priests, your ordaining bishops will warn you in these words:

“Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross.”

But beforehand, the bishops will also remind you: “… remember in your heart that if it should come about that the Church, or any of its members, is hurt or hindered by reason of your neglect, your fault will be great and God’s judgment will follow.”

In the old rites, the words are even sterner: “And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.”

Those were the words used at my ordination … and they sent shivers down the spines of some of my friends present who didn’t know what to expect.

You will need to be supported in your commitment to your ordination vows. And when you know the joys and the necessity of that support, remember too, in love and charity, those who cannot find that support, your colleagues and neighbours who will not have that support either because of the past actions and misjudgements of their bishops, or because of enforced celibacy, or because others say things like: “A plague on all your houses!”

Hold before you the hope that the Son of Man is coming this Advent, as our Gospel reading reminds us, in power and glory. When you hear the sort of things we’ve heard and see the sorts of things we’ve seen, stand up, chin out, raise your heads, strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before God at his coming.

And help your colleagues to do the same.

And take courage, help them to take courage too, from the words we heard from the Apostle Paul this evening: “… may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (I Thessalonians 3: 12).

And now, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in the chapel on Wednesday, 2 December 2009.

1 comment:

Daniel & Sonja said...

Thank you Patrick for your Spirit-filled words. I have found them most helpful in being able to understand and articulate my own emotions which have arisen in response to the publication of the Murphy report and I am sincerely grateful to you for sharing them.