17 October 2010

The bread of God gives life to the world

The West Door, Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny: Sunday 17 October 2010

11.30 a.m.: Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist (Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 100; Philippians 4: 4-9; John 6: 25-35).

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

I want to thank the Dean, the Very Revd Katharine Poulton, for her invitation to preach at the Harvest Eucharist in this cathedral this morning.

We worked closely on the Discovery programme for new immigrants in Dublin … she even convinced me into celebrating a “U2charist” in her last parish. Jokingly, she would refer to the two of us as the “baby canons” in Christ Church Cathedral. Now she’s moved to Kilkenny as dean, I am no longer a baby canon … more of an aging canon.

I’m delighted to be back in Kilkenny. This is a very special place for me, and I am a regular visitor. I once wrote for the Kilkenny People. And, more recently, I taught Byzantine and Islamic studies as extra mural courses on the Maynooth campus at Saint Kieran’s College.

Of course, with a name like mine, I would love Kilkenny. In the past, two members of my family have been deans of this cathedral: Edmund Comerford was the last pre-Reformation dean, and his son William Comerford was the first Reformation dean of this cathedral.

Like the people in our Old Testament reading this morning, I can go before the priest and say I have come into the land of my ancestors (Deuteronomy 26: 3).

That may be enough of history. But recently I was looking back on some old Victorian charity advertising. In the 1880s and 1890s, some of the more “respectable” charities supported by senior Victorian Anglican clergy had teasing names referring to “distressed gentlefolk” or “deserving poor,” names that imply the vast majority of the poor are undeserving, that their poverty is of their own making, they simply need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

They imply that “distressed gentlefolk” – the poor with good manners and from “good families” – are more worthy of our charity than those who have been ground down for generations.

By Victorian standards, it was far better to have once had 30,000 acres and to have lost it all through speculation, drinking and gambling, than to have had nothing at all for generations … not even a glimmer of hope.

It’s slightly amusing to think that this is the way our Victorian forebears viewed distress and poverty. But our system of local government was founded on these values: the Poor Law Unions, which became our county councils, were set up to make sure the poorhouses and the workhouses opened their doors only to those who really needed help … and not to those who had always desperately needed help.

In Ireland we have always dealt with those we do not want on our doorsteps by shipping them away, in penal ships, in famine ships, in coffin ships. The only difference today is that we encourage them to go rather than force them to go, and we don’t care whether they go on Ryanair, Aer Lingus or British Airways.

We still think the same way today as the Victorians did about those who endure and suffer poverty. The comedian Colin Murphy illustrated this in an amusing map in The Irish Times last week, in which he divided Dublin, not into the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots,” but into the “Hads” and the “Had Nots.” In our collective experience of national poverty, we still try to separate those we think deserve nothing from those we think do not deserve to be left with nothing.

An ordinand in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute last week shared an experience from a summer placement in a large inner city parish. This student spent a night walking the streets of that city, from 10 at night until 4 in the morning, with a priest of the placement parish.

To her surprise, these two women were safe in the night, walking those city streets, befriending the homeless.

But what surprised her even more was the homeless did not fit into categories she had placed them in before walking those streets. She expected the majority to be ‘winos’, down-and-outs, people who had brought their woes upon themselves. Instead, she found that, by-and-large, they were the victims of society’s failure to care, society’s failure to share, society’s failure to look them in the face and to recognise their humanity.

Many had started off in life well-educated; they came from good families; they once had good jobs, good homes, good names. But many fell on hard times due to circumstances not of their own making – the loss of a job so often brings the loss of a home for those who cannot keep up mortgage payments; the loss of mental health, which comes as easily as the loss of physical health, means the loss of employment, even the loss of family and home.

No-one sets out in life with a career plan that says I want to be homeless, I want to live on the streets. No-one sets out in life with a career plan that says I want to be refugee who is denied asylum and deported will-nilly. No-one starts out in life wanting to wander and to face a future of uncertainty, offered only the most menial of jobs and the constant victim of racist taunts.

Yet these are precisely the experiences of the people whose story is at the heart of our Old Testament reading. To suit the schemes of a megalomaniac ruler who was one of the greatest-ever property speculators too, they were forced to make bricks with straw as he built massive, beautiful but useless edifices with the sole purpose of perpetuating his memory (Deuteronomy 26: 6).

Does that remind you of governments and property speculators who forged ahead blindly with their own building programmes, regardless of the fact that they were stealing from the harvests of the future and impoverishing our people?

The Hebrew slaves by the Nile would never have been regarded by the Pharaohs – to use that Victorian term – as the “deserving poor,” as “distressed gentlefolk.” Eventually, those slaves go, not because Moses convinced Pharaoh of their human rights, but because they are too much bother to him (c.f. Deuteronomy 26: 7).

Their forty years wandering in the wilderness came to mind as I heard of those two women, priest and student, walking those city streets at night. While everyone else slept, they saw the needs of those who had been made homeless … and in Christ’s name they encouraged the church to meet those needs, in food and shelter, in comfort and counsel.

There is a bountiful future ahead of us. God promises to meet our needs in the worst of times, God promises a harvest for us even when others see us as undeserving, as a problem better sent away into the wilderness, into another land (Deuteronomy 26: 9-11).

But part of that harvest of the future has been stolen from us. Some bankers – not all bankers, but some bankers – stole from our future, and you and I, our children and even our grandchildren, will be burdened with the debts from that theft for generations to come, forced, metaphorically, to build bricks with straw while the pyramids of our generation sink in the sands of time.

We now know that those who borrowed from our future have stolen from it yet are free … free and easy, and in some cases laughing … laughing at our expense, literally.

There is not just an economic deficit in a society, but a justice deficit in a society where bottle bankers go to jail because, being unemployed, they cannot pay fines, while Anglo-Irish bankers go to America, and have themselves declared bankrupt to protect themselves.

If those who are responsible for our present woes are not made answerable there is a danger that society will find other scapegoats among the vulnerable: that we allow immigrants to be the victims of racism (c.f. Deuteronomy 26: 11 and its reference to the aliens); that we allow the long-term unemployed to dismissed as the “undeserving poor”; that we export the young who have no job prospects; that we provide education and health care for those who can afford to pay but not for those who need them most, for those who may benefit most.

But pointing fingers can easily become a substitute for action that seeks justice. Our readings are a healthy antidote to the temptation to descend into a culture of blame.

We are reminded that even in the depths of economic despair, even in the darkness of exile in the wilderness, even when the vulnerable become the victims of racism and are taunted and pursued, even when many are exploited through hard labour, low pay, affliction, toil and oppression (Deuteronomy 26: 6), the Lord promises bounty and home, food and love, peace and justice that surpass all our human understanding (Philippians 4: 7-8).

And as Christians, our task is to be, we are called to be signs, tokens, sacraments of God’s generosity, God’s care, God’s love, even for those we see as the “undeserving poor” … and to keep on doing those things (Philippians 4: 8-9)

We are called not just to pray as disciples of Christ, but to live that discipleship. If we taste the bread of heaven without living out our discipleship, others will think we believe not in the true bread from heaven, but in a promise of pie in the sky (John 6: 26, 29). For the bread of God gives life to the world (John 6: 33).

And when we turn to him who is the bread of life in our Harvest Eucharist this morning, let us pray that the Christ who feeds us spiritually will also empower us to serve the Lord with gladness and to live lives that show we know “his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age” (Psalm 100: 4).

And so, may all we think, say and do 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 Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, on Sunday 17 October 2010.

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