26 June 2011

Listening to others and accepting them as God listens and accepts us

The trivial round, the common task,/will furnish all we ought to ask,/room to deny ourselves, a road/to bring us daily nearer God (John Keble) ... sunlight on the harbour at Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 26 June 2011

The First Sunday after Trinity

10.30: The Eucharist, Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin.

Genesis 22: 1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6: 12-23; Matthew 10: 40-42.

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

In the Church Calendar, this time of the year, from Trinity Sunday until the beginning of Advent, is sometimes called ‘Ordinary Time’ and the Sundays are counted from today as ‘The First Sunday after Trinity’ and so on.

It is as though we are saying we have been busy for the past few months … with Epiphany, Candlemas, Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Pentecost … and now let us have some Ordinary Time.

But that’s not what Ordinary Time means. We ought not to be suffering from some Spiritual Exhaustion and so need to sit back and take part in plain, ordinary every-Sunday type of Church.

‘Ordinary Time’ comes from the Latin Tempus per annum, “time through the year.” It is a time without great seasons such as Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. The weeks have ordinary names with numbers, rather than special names. The liturgical colour is plain green, rather than the majestic white or gold of Christmas and Easter, the dramatic red of Pentecost and martyrs, the royal violet of Lent and Advent. Green is an ordinary colour. It means life goes on, life is growing, like the grass beneath our feet. Life moves on, as signalled by the green of traffic lights.

Ordinary Time is the longest time in the Church year. It has few significant events; it has a kind of ordinariness that other seasons lack. There are no narrative highpoints, no showy colours or costumes, not even a signature hymn or two. We enter, as the poet TS Eliot says in Burnt Norton, “at the still point”:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…

Burnt Norton, the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets, is a poem of early summer, air and grace. For Eliot, it is in the movement of time that brief moments of eternity are caught; “there the dance is,” the revelation of God in Christ is at the intersection between eternity and time. Life can be very ordinary – time is ordinary – when life and time keep going on and on, round and round. But life and time, in their ordinary ways, are worth celebrating, time after time, in every ordinary life.

The poem After Trinity by John Meade Falkner (1858-1932) seems to convey something that is very Anglican about this time of the year, this Ordinary Time, when Sunday follows Sunday, through the beauty of creation and following the course of the natural year:

We have done with dogma and divinity,
Easter and Whitsun past,
The long, long Sundays after Trinity
Are with us at last;
The passionless Sundays after Trinity,
Neither feast-day nor fast.

Christmas comes with plenty,
Lent spreads out its pall,
But these are five and twenty,
The longest Sundays of all;
The placid Sundays after Trinity,
Wheat-harvest, fruit-harvest, Fall.

Ordinary Time lasts these “five and twenty Sundays” or so, for five or six months – until the beginning of Advent. But as Meade Falkner reminds us, some extra-ordinary things happen in this season of “placid Sundays.” We have the long days of summer, the harvest of wheat and fruit, summer holidays and the longest day of the year. For children, it is summer holiday time – time at the beach, time to travel, time to explore, and in all of those times, time to mature and time to grow.

Ordinary Time allows the Church to celebrate the ordinariness of life – including Harvest Thanksgiving services – as summer moves into autumn and as we anticipate autumn moving into winter.

John Keble (1792-1866) captures some of the beauties of this season in our opening hymn, New every morning (Irish Church Hymnal, No 59):

The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask,
room to deny ourselves, a road
to bring us daily nearer God.

Do you find yourself being brought nearer to God day-by-day, in a new way each morning, in the ordinary, trivial things of daily life?

Yet, Meade Falkner is not quite right when he says this is a “passionless” season with “neither feast-day nor fast,” for there are some feast-days in “Ordinary Time.” On Friday last [24 June], the Church Calendar marked the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, and next Wednesday [29 June] is the Feast Day of Saint Peter, and our neighbours in the Roman Catholic Church and in some parts of the Church of England celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi on Thursday [23 June], the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

I have memories of Corpus Christi being celebrated with a triumphalism in the 1950s and 1960s, when processions proclaimed that this was Catholic Ireland and those who could not take part in the processions were not truly part of that Ireland.

Thankfully, those days are gone. And, almost unnoticed, Corpus Christi has been transferred in many places to this Sunday, the First Sunday after Trinity. The changes – in time and in practice – have removed the possibility of giving Corpus Christi a new, fresh and vibrant meaning, giving a fresh and new vibrancy to our ‘Amen’ at the Eucharist, when we say ‘Amen’ to Christ present in the sacrament and ‘Amen’ to Christ present in the body of the Church, in each and every one of us.

The Feast-day of Saint Peter, which falls in these weeks too, is a traditional time for ordaining deacons and priests, so that these days are known as Petertide. Four priests are being ordained at the Petertide ordinations in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this afternoon: the Revd Paul Arbuthnot (Glenageary), the Revd Terry Lilburn (Whitechurch), the Revd Ken Rue (Powerscourt), and the Revd Martha Waller (Raheny and Coolock).

They have already spent a year each as deacons. So, as priests, how are they going to be different? What makes their lives and commitments different from now on in a way that they were not as deacons? How is a priest different from a deacon?

These are questions that are more difficult if we refer to all who are ordained as “ministers.” Lay people have a ministry in the church too – it is said the ministry of deacons is the foundation for all ordained ministry; but we could also say our common, shared baptism is the beginning of every ministry in the Church.

At their ordination, deacons are told that serving others “is at the heart of all ministry”, that they must “ensure that those in need are cared for with compassion and humility.” Yet the Very Revd Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (right), who was persecuted as Dean of Johannesburg under the apartheid regime, once wisely observed: “Although one can assure people of the love of God, it is sometimes more important to show them the love of man.”

And so these four new priests remain deacons after this afternoon, as all priests do, as bishops and archbishops do. But the ministry of a priest is very specific, and is often identified in Anglican ordinals in four specific tasks: steward, watchman, messenger and shepherd. How does this translate into the way a priest exercises priestly ministry?

To return to the wisdom of Dean Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, he once repeated the old adage that the definition of a priest is the person who represents God to humanity and humanity to God.

Of course, a priest presents God to the people through Christ in the Eucharist and in the Word of God, and presents the people through Christ to God in the Eucharist and in the Word of God. But the dean also advised priests to “present God to people by listening to them and accepting them as God listens and accepts” them, as God listens and accepts us (see our Gospel reading, Matthew 10: 40-42).

Saint John’s, Lichfield ... walking into the light and love and life of God (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

They were wise words from the priest who had a most profound influence on the course of my life. Forty years ago this summer, at the age of 19, unplanned and unexpectedly, I walked into a small church, the chapel at Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield, and – for the first time in my life – I felt filled with the love and light of God.

I did not know how to respond to this ... but I soon found myself sitting in the choir stalls at Choral Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral, where one of the residentiary canons asked me whether I had decided to start going to church because I was thinking of ordination – 40 years ago, when I was just a 19-year-old.

It was the summer of 1971, and I was struck by news reports of the treason trial of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh. His hospitality in his cathedral for persecuted black protesters, who were being sacrificed cruelly on the altar of apartheid, left a lasting image of what should be Christian discipleship, sacrifice, self-giving, ministry and priesthood (see our Old Testament reading, Genesis 22: 1-14).

That feeling of the light and love of Christ remains with me. It is an ever-present, self-defining, constant. It is a feeling that I imagine the Apostle Paul had as he was writing this morning’s epistle reading (Romans 6: 12-23). Thirty years later, at the age of 49, I was ordained priest in Christ Church Cathedral at the Petertide ordinations on 24 June 2001, having been ordained deacon a year earlier

I am no late vocation ... I was simply slow and late in responding to that call. I am grateful to those who have inspired me, prayed for me, and supported me along the way. And there is a particular pleasure in celebrating that anniversary here in Holmpatrick Church at this Eucharist this morning.

Pray for the four deacons being ordained priests this afternoon. Pray for those who continue in priestly ministry to present God through Christ to us, and us through Christ to God. And pray that we may all have the grace and the power to assure people of the love of God and to show them the love of humanity.

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, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion) in Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin, on Sunday 26 June 2011.


the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

After Trinity, John Meade Falkner (1858-1932):

We have done with dogma and divinity,
Easter and Whitsun past,
The long, long Sundays after Trinity
Are with us at last;
The passionless Sundays after Trinity,
Neither feast-day nor fast.

Christmas comes with plenty,
Lent spreads out its pall,
But these are five and twenty,
The longest Sundays of all;
The placid Sundays after Trinity,
Wheat-harvest, fruit-harvest, Fall.

Spring with its burst is over,
Summer has had its day,
The scented grasses and clover
Are cut, and dried into hay;
The singing-birds are silent,
And the swallows flown away.

Post pugnam pausa fiet;
Lord, we have made our choice;
In the stillness of autumn quiet,
We have heard the still, small voice.
We have sung Oh where shall Wisdom?
Thick paper, folio, Boyce.

Let it not all be sadness,
Not omnia vanitas,
Stir up a little gladness
To lighten the Tibi cras;
Send us that little summer,
That comes with Martinmas.

When still the cloudlet dapples
The windless cobalt blue,
And the scent of gathered apples
Fills all the store-rooms through,
The gossamer silvers the bramble,
The lawns are gemmed with dew.

An end of tombstone Latinity,
Stir up sober mirth,
Twenty-fifth after Trinity,
Kneel with the listening earth,
Behind the Advent trumpets
They are singing Emmanuel’s birth.

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