Sunday, 13 October 2013

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes
to me will never be hungry ...’

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6: 35) ... bread in a Greek baker’s window in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 13 October 2013,

8 p.m., Annagh Church, Belturbet, Co Cavan,

Harvest Thanksgiving Service.

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 am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6: 35).

It’s wonderful to be back in Belturbet once again. I was last here two years ago for the ordination as deacon of one of my students, the Revd Naomi Quinn.

Now it is a pleasure to be invited back by the Revd Tanya Woods. Tanya and I were students together; then Tanya was back as a student in the Theological Institute for the past year; now we are colleagues once again.

It is wonderful to see a friend grow and blossom in ministry and mission, growing as a labourer in the harvest.

Coming here, I am enchanted not just by the 400-year history of this beautiful town, but by the landscape, the hills and the lakes.

Many, many years ago, when I was in my teens – I remember the year, it was 1967 – my father took me out rowing on Lough Ramor, trying to convince of the need to focus on what lay ahead of me in my adult life, and to prepare for a future career.

Little did he know, little did I imagine then, where my life was going, and where my priorities in life would eventually be focussed.

Our Gospel reading this evening is set on the shores of the Lake of Galilee, and after many accounts of rowing on the lake, this evening’s reading opens with an interesting question from the crowd on the lake shore:

‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ (verse 25)

In between all the rowing backwards and forwards, between Tiberias and Capernaum, the crowd were so busy with eating their fill, with their own small world, that they have missed the bigger picture – they have taken their eyes off Jesus.

And the question they put to him here is very similar in its thrust, in its phrasing, in its direction to another set of questions in another Gospel story. In the parable of the Goats and Sheep, or the Judgment of the Nations, in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25: 31-46), the righteous ask:

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you to drink. And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” (Matthew 25: 44).

And again, the condemned ask:

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” (Matthew 25: 37-39).

Sometimes, not just in parishes or dioceses, but in theological colleges too, we can be so focussed on our own agenda, our own practices of religion, that we can be in danger of losing sight of who Jesus should be for us.

Those questions in our Harvest Gospel this evening and that parable of the Goats and Sheep are very disturbing.

‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’

When did I last see Christ among the strangers and the unwelcome, among the ragged children and refugees, among the sick who have their medical cards taken from them, among those isolated in rural poverty and loneliness, prisoners in their own homes? When did I last see you drowining in the sea off the coast of Lampedusa or Malta?

‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’

When did I see to it that they not only received the crumbs from my table, but the Bread of Life? When did I moan about Europe being “swamped” by refugees, while I hoped America and Australia would give more visas to young Irish people squeezed out of the failing Irish economy?

‘The bread of God ... gives life to the world’ (John 6: 33) ... fresh bread in Hindley’s Bakery in Tamworth Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We find Harvest a very comforting time, and I do not want to take away from that at all.

There is a lot to be thankful for, and the words of our opening hymn, ‘Come ye thankful people come’ (Hymn 37, Irish Church Hymnal), are particularly appropriate this year, given the wonderful summer, the beautiful autumn and the rich harvest many farmers have been blessed with.

Yes we should be, we must be, thankful.

But just for a moment imagine how difficult those words are to sing for many people living in our midst today. If you are an asylum seeker living on what is cruelly called “direct provision” and facing the winter storms in a mobile home, told without choice what food you and your children must eat, it may be difficult to “raise the song of harvest-home” with the same joy and enthusiasm that we are sharing here this evening.

And yet that hymn goes on to implore God that all will be free from sorrow, goes on to trust that God will provide.

In our Gospel reading, we hear how God still wants to provide for us, no matter how we behave, no matter what our circumstances.

And Christ’s words are addressed not to the Disciples, who later are going to find his teachings difficult (see John 6: 60), but to the crowds, the multitude, the many, those who are on the margins and the outside, the very people the disciples first thought of sending away.

First, Christ feeds the many, the crowds, the 5,000, with bread on the mountainside that is multiplied for the multitude. And then in this passage, even though they took their eyes off him, Christ now continues to promise them real food, he promises them “the true bread from heaven” (verse 33) and tells them:

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (verse 35).

Care for the body and care for the soul go together to the point that they are inseparable.

The Samaritan Woman at the Well ... a modern Greek icon in an exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete, last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The promise Christ gives the crowds on the shores of the lake re-echo the promises he gives earlier in this Gospel to the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4: 5-42).

The promise of the “the true bread from heaven,” the promise of the “Bread of Life,” come immediately after the promise to the Samaritan woman of “Living Water” (see John 4: 10, 11, 14). We can even link those promises with the promise of the banquet of life in the Miracle at the wedding in Cana (see John 2: 1-11).

Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Living Water, the best wine, the true vine.

So often he talks about himself in Saint John’s Gospel in terms of food and drink, bread and water and wine. We are invited to the banquet that follows the harvest, we are invited to the wedding with the Bridegroom.

But so often too he emphasises that his invitation is to the outsider too: those in the highways and byways who are invited to the wedding banquet (see Matthew 22: 1-14; Luke 14: 15-24).

The Gospel message is especially for those in the wilderness. Where do you think the wilderness places are today in our society, on our island, in the world? For it is there that God seeks to provide the blessings that come with his manna from heaven, and seeks to give life, not just to us but to the world:

“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (verse 33).

The Gospel reading in the Lectionary for this morning (Luke 17: 11-19) is the story not just of ten lepers who are healed, but a Samaritan – marginalised because of his religion, his ethnicity, and his health – who is healed. And in being healed in that wilderness area between Galilee and Samaria, in having his physical and social needs met, he comes to worship Christ as the Lord God Incarnate.

The Samaritan woman at the well – marginalised because of her religion, her ethnicity and prejudices about her marital or sexual status – is brought to a wholeness of life. And as a consequence she becomes one of the most effective missionaries in the New Testament, bringing the Good News of Christ to her town.

Saint Paul tells us in our Epistle reading this evening:

“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4: 9).

When you rejoice in the harvest, remember those who are the margins, but who are invited by Christ to rejoice in the harvest too, to experience him as the Bread of Life, as Living Water, as the True Vine, who seeks to feed them in the wilderness, wherever the wilderness places are in our world today ... it may not make you prosperous or popular, but “the God of peace will be with you.”

And so, may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Parish Church of Annagh stands on a prominent hilltop in Belturbet, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Service in Annagh Church, Belturbet, Co Cavan, on 13 September 2013.

Church closes in Comberford village
after final harvest service this evening

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford is due to be close this evening (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

Patrick Comerford

Despite the efforts, prayers and protests of many of the residents of Comberford village in Staffordshire, the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford is due to close after a final Harvest Thanksgiving Service in the church this evening [Sunday 13 October 2013].

The small, picturesque church, east of Lichfield and north of Tamworth, was donated to the people of Comberford by Howard Francis Paget (1858-1935) of Elford Hall. The first stone was laid at a special ceremony in 1914 and the building was completed in 1915.

The Paget family’s interest in the area continued for generations. Howard Paget’s daughter, Charlotte Gabrielle Howard Paget, married Joseph Harold Hodgetts, and died in Lichfield in 1979. Their son, the late Harold Patrick Hodgetts, lived nearby at Model Farm in Elford, and Pat Hodgetts was proud that his grandparents had given the church to the village.

A letter written on behalf of members of the congregation and published in the Tamworth Herald on Friday [11 October 2013] says: “It is a great pity that the church is to shut when it is so close to its centenary.”

The parishioners point out in their letter regular services have been held, in the church twice a month, with an evening service every second Sunday and a 9 a.m. Holy Communion on the last Sunday of every month.

“The running costs for this particular building do not run into thousands, accounting ought to be more precise on this issue,” the parishioners say in their letter.

They point out that many local people, including some who do not attend the church, have contributed large sums of money that have been invested in the building. They say future minor work had been outlined with plans to continue to generate funds.

“Unfortunately, the announcement to close the church left people feeling that their contributions were a waste of time” and so they “gave up their efforts.”

Despite claims to the contrary, they say the congregation in Comberford was growing year-on-year with special events attracting man visitors. However, “the news regarding closure from early this year left the congregation not knowing what was happening, which resulted in falling numbers.”

Responding to earlier reports in the Tamworth Herald that only one resident was upset at the closure, they say “this is misleading as many were and still are upset, however, their pleas to keep the church open continue to fall on deaf ears.”

They say the church in Comberford “will be sadly missed, not just as a place for worship but as a public space for the residents of the village who have used the church to attend meetings regarding issues important to them in their community.”

The Vicar of Wigginton, the Revd Debra Dyson, in Comberford Church (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

The Bishop of Wolverhampton, the Right Revd Clive Gregory, is taking part in this evening’s service. The resident say his presence “is welcome,” but go on to say “it is a pity a bishop did not attend when the church was full to overflowing. The congregation extends beyond the immediate houses in the vicinity.”

They say the residents of received letters about the closure of the church only “after the announcement had been made.”

One resident of Comberford, Dr Joanne Cliffe, told me at the weekend: “If I had been allowed the challenge I would have made the church a success! We had a growing visible and active presence in the church but the bottom line is they don’t want it and they don’t want to know.”

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church … local fundraising helped repair the bell tower and spire

Bishop Clive Gregory, who is the Area Bishop on the Diocese of Lichfield responsible for the Deanery of Tamworth, has thanked Dr Cliffe for her “unstinting efforts to support the church in its life and ministry.”

In a letter to Dr Cliffe, Bishop Gregory says he “can empathise greatly with the pain that you must be experiencing at this time, given the strength of the emotional and spiritual ties that you must have with the church and all you have given in its service.” He adds: “It is always a sad day when a church closes its doors for worship.”

However, the bishop makes clear his support for the decision taken by the PCC, “difficult and painful though the consequences are.”

He says the main reason for this support is the desire of the Diocese of Lichfield “to ‘Go for Growth’.”

“At a time when resources are diminishing (in terms of stipendiary clergy and finances) and congregations are struggling to attract new members, I am supportive of the view that we must concentrate our resources (both in terms of people and finance) on church communities which are sustainable and which have realistic potential for significant growth.”

He says the core congregation at Saint Mary and Saint George “consists of just a handful of people from two families. The changed demographic within the village means that there are very few children and younger adults and clearly the older and retired residents continue not to be supportive of the church in terms of regular attendance and commitment.”

He goes on to say that he would “encourage ... the faithful few in the village ... to focus now on how you can maintain a visible and active Christian presence in the village.”

Meanwhile, Bishop Gregory says that when he comes to take the service in Comberford this evening: “I will be most mindful of the pain that the occasion will bring ... and I will certainly acknowledge that. I hope too though that we will be able to give thanks for all that has been enabled through the life of the church.”

The last service in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George takes place in Comberford this evening [Sunday, 13 October 2013], at 6 pm. The service, led by Bishop of Wolverhampton, the Right Revd Clive Gregory, will follow the theme of Harvest Festival but has also been announced as a celebration of the life of the church for almost 100 years. All are welcome to attend and refreshments will be served after the service.

Meanwhile, the future of the building that has served this village for almost a century is unknown.

The emblems of Saint Mary (white rose) and Saint George (red cross) recall the church in Comberford on a hassock in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When we find ourselves travelling in
the in-between place, the nowhere land

As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him … they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ (Luke 17: 12-13)

Patrick Comerford,

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Sunday 13 October 2013,

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity,

11.30 a.m., The Community Eucharist

Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; II Timothy 2: 8-15; Luke 17: 11-19


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

This morning’s Gospel reading is well-loved by preachers – perhaps because it provides the opportunity for so many sermons on faith and healing, inclusion and exclusion, how Christ meets our every need, how we need conversion, on the connection between healing of the body and healing of the soul, perhaps even on the value of good manners and learning to say thank you.

Some parishes are going to hear about one Samaritan who returns and says thank you. Some may even hear about nine other lepers who did exactly as they were told, went and showed themselves to the priests, received a clean bill of health and were restored to their rightful place in the community of faith

But which is the greatest miracle for you: the healing of these ten people; or their restoration to their rightful places in the community of faith?

Perhaps it is worth noting that it is the ten men, not Christ, who keep their distance on the outskirts of the village, because they are forced to behave this way, to be marginalised and to live on the margins

Christ keeps his distance, as might be expected. Yet, from that distance, he sees. We often translate verse 14 to say that “he saw them” but the Greek says simply, καὶ ἰδὼν, “and having seen,” without any object, there is no “them.”

For in Christ there is no “us” and “them.” He sees the future without the limits of the present.

This is a story about trusting in God’s plans for the future, rather than living in the past, living with the fears of the present, living without hope for the future … precisely the context for the urgings and exhortations to the exiles by the Prophet Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7), precisely the hope the Apostle Paul has for Timothy in our epistle reading (II Timothy 2: 8-15).

But we foil those plans, we quench those hopes, we continue to live in the past when we continue to limit Christ’s saving powers with our own limitations, continue to look at him with our own limited vision.

Christ sees … sees it as it is in the present and as it could be in the future.

Perhaps that is why Saint Luke has placed this story in a location that is in the in-between place … the region between Galilee and Samaria. The place between Galilee and Samaria … neither one nor the other, neither this earthly existence, nor what the future holds, but still on the way to Jerusalem.

Even the village here is not named. Is it Sychar, the village where he met the woman at the well who becomes one of the most powerful and successful missionaries in the New Testament? Is Christ in the Decapolis, which squeezes partly between Eastern Galilee and Eastern Samaria? Is there some literary image being created with the Ten who seek healing and the Ten Cities

Perhaps this is idle speculation.

We should not forget that not one but ten were healed. Christ does good – even to those who will not be thankful.

And even then, we do not know why the other nine did not return to say thanks. It took an eight-day waiting process for a person with leprosy to be declared clean by the priests.

After those eight days, did they then go an give thanks to God in their local synagogue?

Did they first breathe sighs of relief and return to the families they loved but had been isolated from for so long?

Did they return to that unnamed village, and find that ten days later Jesus had moved on … the next named place we find him is in Jericho (see Luke 19: 1)?

Surely Christ does good without expecting a thanks that comes straight from some Victorian book on good manners for girls in Cheltenham or Rodean, who know when and how to write thank you notes.

How often when we give a gift to someone do we want to control how they use it?

I give a Christmas or birthday gift, and then I am upset when they don’t like it, when they trade it in for something else, or pass it on to someone else, or simply just never say thank you or acknowledge what I have done for them.

But who was the gift supposed to benefit: me as the giver, or you as the receiver? What was it a token of: my love for you, or my need to tell you how important I am to you?

A begrudging attitude to how others receive and use the gifts I give them, or my taking offence when I feel they have not thanked me profusely enough amounts to a passive aggressive attitude on my part, a desire to control. If we give gifts only to be thanked, are we truly generous?

And if I only say thank you so I remain in someone else’s esteem, perhaps even to be rewarded again, to be kept on their invitation list, am I truly grateful?

Christ is not passively aggressive in this story. He is not seeking to control. He sends the ten on their way … and they go. If he had expected them to return, he would not have been surprised that one returned; he would have waited around in that unnamed village for the other nine had time to make their humble way back to them.

No, it is more important what Christ frees them for, and where he frees them.

He frees them to regain their place in the community, in the social, economic and religious community that is their rightful place.

He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan (Luke 17: 16-17)

For the Samaritan, his “faith has made him well”: ἡπίστις σου σέσωκέν σε, or, more accurately, your faith has saved you, rescued you, restored you. The word σῴζω is all about being saved, rescued, restored, ransomed, and not just about regaining health and physical well-being.

That land between Samaria and Galilee is where we find Christ today. The in-between place, the nowhere land, the place where people need to be saved, rescued, restored, ransomed.

We all find ourselves in the in-between place, the nowhere land ... to borrow a phrase from TS Eliot, wandering in the Waste Land.

This morning, perhaps, just for one moment perhaps, it is possible to imagine that Christ has arrived in that particular in-between place for a reason. For the land between Samaria and Galilee is neither one place nor the other.

And the in-between place is a place where I might find myself unsure of who belongs and who does not, where I might be uncertain, untrusting, even frightened and afraid. It is a place where the usual rules may not apply, where I do not know my place, where I do not fit in, where I appear not as the person God see truly sees me, but as others want to see me.

This is the place where Christ is travelling through this morning. It seems to me that if we are going where we are called to be, then you and I are travelling in that place every day, today.

We all know what it is to travel between what I know and what I wonder about as we encounter this uncertain, often frightening in-between-ness in our lives, in my life.

It is difficult travelling in this in-between land. When we realise we are there, then it may be easier to identify with the Ten Lepers who have been cast out into the in-between land, not knowing where to go, rather than with those who appear certain about where they are going.

You may be in-between testing your vocation and ordination, in-between giving up your present career and facing the unknown in parish ministry, in-between an NSM ministry where you have carved out your own place, and facing a new unknown, a new uncertainty.

When you get to where you are going, remember how you feel about the present unknown, whether it is fear – “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – whether it is fear, trepidation, anticipation, or joy that is tinged with all of these, in this in-between time and this nowhere place.

Remember, as Shakespeare reminds us, in the words of Portia in The Merchant of Venice,

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath
... (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1)

These lepers in today’s Gospel were cut off from all they knew and loved and took for granted, all the certainties they once enjoyed or even took for granted.

And when you get out of this in-between place and nowhere land, do not hold back from your role in the task of cleansing, healing, restoration. You will not be doing it for “Thank Yous” and plaudits. It is not about you, it is not all about me.

Indeed, it is not this one man’s thanks that is important, but that his thanks is expressed in turning around, conversion, and praising God, bowing down before Christ as the Lord God.

Each of us moves at some time, perhaps many times, through our own land that is between Samaria and Galilee, where the rules don’t seem to apply, where the words are hard to find, where healing is elusive, where no-one gives thanks, and no-one seems to say please.

There will be many more times when you are called to travel “between Samaria and Galilee” as Christ did. Yet, Christ is to be found deliberately in these places.

Later on, remember how you once were in these places, remember what it is like, rejoice in the opportunities you have to bring people to Christ’s offer of cleansing, healing and restoration. Others – especially others in the Church – may see those you encounter in those places as unclean, as undeserving. But look at what you have to offer in Christ’s name.

The nowhere, in-between place is where we meet those who have fallen between the cracks in the floorboards, lost their way, have been marginalised without having a say in framing the criteria by which they are marginalised.

The Samaritan leper is an outcast among the outcasts, despised among the despised. But God sees him within his perfect plan, and he offers perfect worship.

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer was the tenth leper turning back.

Christ invites us into that region between Samaria and Galilee, that space between wrong-doing and right-doing, between them and us – and bids us find our healing and salvation – and theirs. And in doing that we find ourselves engaged, quite naturally, in true worship.

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 Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in the Institute Chapel on Sunday 13 October 2013.

Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Holy Spirit equips your Church with a rich variety of gifts:
Grant us so to use them that, living the gospel of Christ
and eager to do your will,
we may share with the whole creation in the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Son, the light unfailing,
has come from heaven to deliver the world
from the darkness of ignorance:
Let these holy mysteries open the eyes of our understanding
that we may know the way of life, and walk in it without stumbling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 17: 11-19

11 Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ πορεύεσθαι εἰς Ἰερουσαλὴμ καὶ αὐτὸς διήρχετοδιὰ μέσον Σαμαρείας καὶ Γαλιλαίας. 1 2καὶ εἰσερχομένου αὐτοῦ εἴς τινα κώμηνἀπήντησαν [αὐτῷ] δέκα λεπροὶ ἄνδρες, οἳ ἔστησαν πόρρωθεν, 13 καὶ αὐτοὶ ἦρανφωνὴν λέγοντες, Ἰησοῦ ἐπιστάτα, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς. 14 καὶ ἰδὼν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς,Πορευθέντες ἐπιδείξατε ἑαυτοὺς τοῖς ἱερεῦσιν. καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ ὑπάγειν αὐτοὺςἐκαθαρίσθησαν. 15 εἷς δὲ ἐξ αὐτῶν, ἰδὼν ὅτι ἰάθη, ὑπέστρεψεν μετὰ φωνῆςμεγάλης δοξάζων τὸν θεόν, 16 καὶ ἔπεσεν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον παρὰ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦεὐχαριστῶν αὐτῷ: καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν Σαμαρίτης. 17 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν, Οὐχὶ οἱδέκα ἐκαθαρίσθησαν; οἱ δὲ ἐννέα ποῦ; 18 οὐχ εὑρέθησαν ὑποστρέψαντες δοῦναιδόξαν τῷ θεῷ εἰ μὴ ὁ ἀλλογενὴς οὗτος; 19 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἀναστὰς πορεύου: ἡπίστις σου σέσωκέν σε.

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14 When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19 Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’