Sunday, 30 July 2017

Catching glimpses of what
the Kingdom of Heaven is like

Evening lights at Stowe Pool and Lichfield Cathedral ... ‘a little snatch of heaven’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Rectory,
Askeatron, Co Limerick

30 July 2017

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity

11 a.m.:
The United Parish Eucharist

Readings: Genesis 29: 15-28; Psalm 105: 1-11, 45b or Psalm 128; Romans 8: 26-39; Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52.

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

Have you ever found yourself lost for words when it comes to describing a beautiful place you have visited?

If you have ever been to the Bay of Naples or Sorrento, how would you describe what you have seen to someone who has never travelled beyond Limerick and Kerry?

You might try comparing the first glimpse of Vesuvius with looking at the Galtymore Mountain or even Carrauntoohil … but even Carrauntoohil is not as high as Vesuvius, and it would hardly describe the experience of climbing the rocky path, looking into the caldera, or the overpowering whiffs of that sulphuric smell.

For someone who has been as far as Dublin, and been on the DART, you might want to compare the Bay of Naples with the vista in Dalkey or Killiney … but that hardly catches the majestic scope of the view.

You might want to compare the church domes with the great copper dome in Rathmines … but that goes nowhere near describing the intricate artwork on those Italian domes.

You might compare the inside of the duomo in Amalfi with the inside of your favourite parish church … but you know you are getting nowhere near what you want to say.

And as for Capri … you are hardly going to write a romantic song about Tarbert or Aughunish Island, or even the stacks off Kilkee.

Comparisons never match the beauty of any place that offers us a snatch or a glimpse of heaven.

And yet, we know that the photographs on our phones, no matter how good they seem to be when we are taking them, never do justice to the places we have been once we get home.

We risk becoming bores either by trying to use inadequate words or inadequate images to describe experiences that we can never truly share with people unless they go there, unless they have been there too.

I suppose that helps to a degree to understand why Jesus keeps on trying to grasp at images that might help the Disciples and help us to understand what the Kingdom of God is like.

He tries to offer us a taste of the kingdom with a number of parables in this morning’s Gospel reading:

● The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed … (verse 31).

● The kingdom of heaven is like yeast … (verse 33).

● The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field … (verse 44).

● The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls … (verse 45).

● The kingdom of heaven is like a net in the sea … (verse 47).

‘Do they understand?’ They answer, ‘Yes.’ But how can they really understand, fully understand?

Some years ago, after a late Sunday lunch at the café in Mount Usher in Co Wicklow, I posted some photographs of the gardens on my website. An American reader I have never met commented: ‘A little piece of heaven.’

We have a romantic imagination that confuses gardens with Paradise, and Paradise with the Kingdom of Heaven. But perhaps that is a good starting point, because I have a number of places where I find myself saying constantly: ‘This is a little snatch of heaven.’ They include:

● The road from Cappoquin out to my grandmother’s farm in West Waterford.

● The journey along the banks of the River Slaney between Ferns and Wexford.

● The view from the east end of Stowe Pool across to Lichfield Cathedral at sunset on a Spring evening.

● The Backs in Cambridge.

● Sunset behind at the Fortezza in Rethymnon on the Greek island of Crete.

● The sights and sounds on some of the many beaches I like to walk on regularly … here, I have introduced myself to Ballybunion, Beal and Kilkee, and there are the beaches along the east coast that I still return to, beaches in Achill, Crete … I could go on.

Sunset on the beach in Rethymnon earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Already this year, I have managed to get back to many of these places.

At times, I imagine the Kingdom of Heaven must be so like so many of these places where I find myself constantly praising God and thanking God for creation and for re-creation.

But … but it’s not just that. And I start thinking that Christ does more than just paint a scene when he describes the kingdom of heaven. Looking at this morning’s Gospel reading again, I realise he is doing more than offering holiday snapshots or painting the scenery.

He tries to describe the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of doing, and not just in terms of being:

● Sowing a seed (verse 31);

● Giving a nest to the birds of the air (verse 32);

● Mixing yeast (verse 33);

● Turning small amounts of flour into generous portions of bread (verse 34);

● Finding hidden treasure (verse 44);

● Rushing out in joy (verse 44);

● Selling all that I have because something I have found is worth more – much, much more, again and again (verse 44, 46);

● Searching for pearls (verse 45);

● Finding just one pearl (verse 46);

● Casting a net into the sea (verse 47);

● Catching an abundance of fish (verse 47);

● Drawing the abundance of fish ashore, and realising there is too much there for personal needs (verse 48);

● Writing about it so that others can enjoy the benefit and rewards of treasures new and old (verse 52).

So there are, perhaps, four or five times as many active images of the kingdom than there are passive images.

Are our images of the kingdom passive or active? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One of my favourite T-shirts, one I saw in the Plaka in Athens some years ago, says: ‘To do is to be, Socrates. To be is to do, Plato. Do-be-do-be-do, Sinatra.’

The kingdom is more about doing than being.

At the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG the week before last I heard about a number of activities that, for me, offer snatches of what the kingdom is like:

1, Bishop David Hamid spoke about the work of Saint Paul’s Church, the Anglican Church in Athens, in partnership with USPG, working with refugees and asylum seekers who continue to arrive in desperate and heart-breaking circumstances on the Greek islands.

2, Bishop Margaret Vertue, from the Diocese of False Bay in the Western Cape, who spoke in her Bible studies each morning of how the Bible relates to the work of the Anglican Church in South Africa with victims of gender-based violence and people trafficking.

3, Rachel Parry, a USPG staff member, who spoke of Bishop Carlo Morales, Bishop of Ozamis in the Philippines who was arrested at gunpoint in May and is still languishing in jail, simply because of his commitment to working with the peace process in his own country.

4, Jo Musker-Sherwood, Director of Hope for the Future, who shared how her experience in mission with USPG has led her to work at lobbying politicians and empowering churches in the whole are of climate change.

5, Carlton Turner, who has moved from the Bahamas and the West Indies to Bloxwich in the Diocese of Lichfield as a vicar, and who talked about how God creates out of chaos, how God’s pattern for growing the Church is about entering chaos and bringing about something creative, something new.

Throughout that week, we were offered fresh and engaging signs of the ministry of Christ as he invites us to the banquet, as he invites us into the Kingdom – works that are little glimpses or snatches of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

This morning’s Eucharist, and the barbecue we are sharing afterwards, should, in their own ways, be glimpses of, snatches, of the heavenly banquet.

And this afternoon, this evening, whenever you go home after the barbecue, I challenge you to think of three places, three gifts in God’s creation, that offer you glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to think of three actions that for you symbolise Christ’s invitation into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Give thanks for these pearls beyond price, and share them with someone you love and cherish.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

On the Backs in Cambridge at Sidney Sussex College Boathouse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect:

Lord of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things:
Graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish us with all goodness,
and of your great mercy keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
whose Son is the true vine and the source of life,
ever giving himself that the world may live:
May we so receive within ourselves
the power of his death and passion
that, in his saving cup,
we may share his glory and be made perfect in his love;
for he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

Christ ‘is the true vine and the source of life, ever giving himself that the world may live’ … an icon of Christ the True Vine in the parish church in Piskopianó in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes in the Diocese of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert. This sermon was prepared for the United Parish Eucharist in Askeaton on Sunday 30 July 2017.

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