24 January 2010

Moving outside our comfort zones

Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral, Orlando … a warm welcome and Anglican cathedral liturgy at its best (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 24 January 2010 (The Third Sunday after the Epiphany),

11 a.m. Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin:

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12: 12-31a; Luke 4: 14-21

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

Earlier this month, I spent a week in Florida on a holiday in Orlando.

This was my first visit to the United States. Perhaps, had we gone to New York or Boston it might have been less of a culture shock. But for me, this was very different in a way that no other place in Europe is different for me.

I’m not talking about Disney World or the Universal Studios – indeed, for the vast majority of people in Orlando, these parks are hardly part of their daily life experience, let alone something that they would regard as cultural.

Nor am I talking about my church experiences. Yes, I tasted some of the vast array of churches in Orlando – Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Black Pentecostalist, and Baptist.

Hardly good news for thurifers at Downtown Baptist Church in Orlando! (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Outside the Downtown Baptist Church – that is its name – there’s one of those wacky signs that says: ‘Biggest game of all – the ”Eternity Bowl” Don’t land in the smoking section.’ And I don’t think they were warning against the use of incense.

But apart from that, my Church experiences were interesting and enriching.

A window in the United Methodist Church in Orlando commemorates Barbara Heck and Philip Embury, two missionaries from Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The United Methodist Church in Orlando, in a stained-glass window, honours Barbara Heck and Philip Embury, two Irish-born Methodists who were among the first missionaries in North America.

The Greek Orthodox parish has an interesting ministry with marginalised immigrants, including Christians from Sudan, Egypt and Syria who are mainly Orthodox or who have found that they are not welcome among what should be their own traditions.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint James is being rebuilt and looks like a bomb site. But it has a wonderful ministry among Spanish-speaking Hispanics in Orlando, many Florida-born but many more from Puerto Rico, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean and Central America.

A charismatic welcome for all-comers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The Black Pentecostalist congregation we came across by accident was warmly welcoming to two European tourists who were the only two white people to walk in. And they blessed us.

As for Saint Luke’s, the Episcopalian Cathedral, I had a wonderful experience there of Anglican cathedral liturgy. In the other churches I may have stepped, to a greater or lesser degree, outside my comfort zone. But the Eucharist in Saint Luke’s brought me back home to what Anglican liturgy should be.

The Diocese of Central Florida has aligned itself with some of the most conservative voices not only among American Episcopalians, but throughout the Anglican Communion. Yet I was warmly welcomed and delighted with what is perfect Anglican cathedral liturgy at its very best – long may the Diocese of Central Florida stay within The Episcopal Church and within the Anglican Communion.

So my church experiences were positive.

But what was most different for me, what most disturbed me as a former journalist, what was most alien for me, with my needs for both Irish and European news, was the way the news was presented in the media in Florida, on television and in the newspapers.

If you have experience of reading American newspapers or watching American television news, then you know what a culture shock this was for me. It was different, and it was not what I expected.

So different, that I felt isolated. And so isolated partly because I felt there was a heavy emphasis on personal, social and political tragedies.

But, in general, what do people expect here when we hear the news?

When you turn on the news first thing in the morning, or buy your newspaper, or settle down to the evening news, what do you expect?

Murder, mystery and suspense?

Do you expect to hear about the world and its problems?

Do you expect to hear primarily about bad news?

I suppose the news here for the past week has been dominated by bad news – a high profile murder trial, more bad weather, more economic woes, more late-night killings, more traffic delays and flight cancellations, more strikes, more disruption to the health service, and, most of all, the catastrophic consequences of the earthquake in Haiti.

It’s almost as if we expect bad news to dominate our news bulletins and our newspapers, with the only items that pass as good news being titillating accounts of the private lives of public personalities.

Perhaps it was always so.

Look at our Lectionary reading from the Old Testament for this morning (Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10).

Ezra brings the book of the Law of Moses before the assembly and reads it to the people, men and women and all who could understand, and continues reading for them from early morning until mid-day.

Their initial reaction to Ezra’s reading was to give their great Amen, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands, bowing their heads and worshipping God.

But in reality, this reading appears to have been very glum news indeed for these people. At first they thought this was an occasion of sorrow for them, they bowed their heads, mourned and wept.

But Ezra told them not to weep. He told them that the words of the Law of God were bringing them good news, the promise of participation in the banquet of the Lord. They were not to be grieved. Instead, they were to go off and eat and drink, and share their food and wine with those who had nothing to eat or drink.

The Apostle Paul, in our New Testament reading (I Corinthians 12: 12-31a), talks about how all the members of the Church are one together and share in the one Spirit.

This was hardly good news to the literate, more comfortable Corinthian Christians. The Church there was divided by exclusivism and by the refusal of some of the Corinthians to share the meals, to share communion, to share sacred time with fellow Church members from different socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds.

When the Apostle Paul’s letter arrived, it must have shaken some of the Corinthian Christians out of their comfort zone too. They were to respect one another, no matter what their background was, they were to share and to eat with one another, they were to share each others news, rejoicing at their good news and weeping at their bad news (see verse 26).

The Risen Christ and the Cross above the High Altar in Saint Luke's Cathedral, Orlando (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In our Gospel reading too (Luke 4: 14-21), Christ shakes the people who are listening to him in Nazareth out of their comfort zones.

The initial reaction from the people is to praise him.

Politicians and rectors alike know about the honeymoon period: people are polite to those in a new office for the first few weeks or months. But sooner or later the honeymoon period is over – and from then on, it is often the case, the critics are heard before the politician or the priest even speaks.

This happens with Christ too. He begins to teach in the synagogues in Galilee, and at first he “was praised by everyone” (verses 14-15).

But once he asks them to step outside their comfort zone, once he delivers news that they do not want to hear, he loses their praise and adulation, and he faces rejection.

If you thought the selection of verses for our Old Testament reading this morning was a bit selective, leaving in some verses and leaving out others, then imagine how some people must have felt about the way Christ apparently picks and chooses the verses he is going to read from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, and then tells them this is good news for them.

He moves back and forward as he selects precisely and concisely the verses he wants to emphasise in order to deliver the news he wants them to hear.

And they are moved outside their comfort zone, they are challenged and they are disturbed. They are filled with rage, drive him out of his own hometown, and try to kill him (verses 28-29).

Isaiah’s prophecies are well and good for people in the future to deal with … but don’t ask us to deal with these issues today.

It was very easy for most of us just a month ago to accept the warm comforts wrapped up in our folk interpretations and celebrations of Christmas. But if we are to accept the Incarnation and to really believe in more than folk Christmas, we need to use this season of Epiphany to move us along towards the whole purpose of Christmas and the Incarnation: for Christmas faith is meaningless without Easter faith.

If the incarnation is about God taking on flesh, then Epiphany-tide is about Christianity being fleshed out. And these are very fleshy, very worldy, concerns for Christ in this morning’s Gospel reading.

In the Anglican tradition, preachers regularly began their sermons with the closing words of this morning’s Psalm: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer” (Psalm 19: 14).

But are the words we preach, is Christianity as we proclaim it, good news for people today? Is it, perhaps, bad news? Or – worse than bad news – is it becoming more and more irrelevant? Or are we willing to restore its relevance?

This morning’s Gospel reading is good news, and not just to the poor and oppressed in Nazareth in the past.

Who are the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed in our midst today? And are we happy with them knowing that compassion for them is at the heart of Christ’s ministry and mission?

Is it too much for us to recover the message that links Christmas faith and Easter faith – that declares that the Gospel is good news for the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed among us today?

It is good news that may challenge us – that may take us outside our comfort zones. But if we step outside our comfort zone and recover this good news, then we can play our part in restoring the relevance of the Gospel and of the Church to a society today that is overwhelmed by bad news.

For as our Psalm this morning tells us, the word of God should revive the soul, give wisdom to the innocent, rejoice the heart and give light to the eyes (Psalm 19: 7-8).

And so, 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 and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 24 January 2010.

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