09 October 2017

Counting in those who are
counted out at the harvest

A mediaeval carved image of Saint Francis of Assisi in the cloisters in the ruins of the Franciscan friary in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

9 October 2017:

8 p.m., Ballingrane Methodist Church, Co Limerick

The Harvest Thanksgiving Festival

II Corinthians 9: 6-15; Luke 17: 11-19.

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

I want to thank the Revd Ruth Watt for her invitation to preach at this evening’s Harvest Service.

I think we first met when I was a visiting lecturer at Edgehill Theological College in Belfast, where she was a student, and now we are also working together on the Rathkeale Pre-Social Cohesion Project.

The covenant relationship between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church offers us many opportunities. These opportunities are not all about serious, straight-faced theological discussions, but also how we can share our fun and our problems, our joys and our sorrows, our faith and our worship.

So, thank you for your invitation to be here this evening.

For the past nine months, I have been the priest-in-charge in the Rathkeale Group of Parishes, which includes the Church of Ireland parish churches in Rathkeale, Askeaton, Castletown and Tarbert.

Throughout these parishes, I am coming across Methodist churches and former Methodist churches; indeed, in Tarbert the memorials and tablets from the former Methodist church are now in place in Saint Brendan’s Church.

In these past nine months, there has been a joy in these ecumenical contacts. When I was a theology student, I did placements with Shankill Road Methodist Church in Belfast and with the Dublin Central Mission. So, you can imagine, I expected these among my Methodist neighbours and friends.

The other great ecumenical contact is with my Roman Catholic neighbours. Father Seán Ó Longaigh, Parish Priest of Askeaton and Ballysteen, preached at our Harvest Thanksgiving Service in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, on Friday evening, and drew creatively on his mission experience in Nigeria.

The cloisters in the ruins of the Franciscan friary in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Another ecumenical dimension to my experiences here is provided when I find quiet times throughout the week in the cloisters in among the ruins of the Franciscan Priory on the banks of the River Deel in Askeaton.

It is moments of silent prayer like that must have been experienced when he visited the site of Nicholas Ferrar’s community and wrote in his poem ‘Little Gidding’:

… You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

I find so many parallels between the lives and emphases of Saint Francis of Assisi and John Wesley.

Saint Francis, whose feast day fell last Wednesday [4 October], died in 1224.

What did these two great saints have in common?

Simplicity was a mark of both lives. Saint Francis took a vow of evangelical poverty. John Wesley’s course was less severe, but he also gave away his money, abstained for years at a time from meat and wine, and rejoiced in his freedom from things.

A love of other animals was also a trait Francis of Assisi and John Wesley had in common.

Everyone has heard about Saint Francis preaching to the birds. Once he had pity on some doves that were about to be sold for slaughter. He bought them, took them to his brothers and made nests for them. They prospered and, as it was said, they were as tame as hens around them.

John Wesley loved his horses and advocated compassionate treatment of all animals. His occasional practice of vegetarianism increased his witness of respect for other creatures.

The practices of both contain the seeds of an ecological wisdom needed today.

They cherished spirituality more than learning.

Saint Francis was aware of how intellectual pursuits may obscure the development of love of God and the virtues of humility and compassion. He looked upon the simple people in the world as often possessing the most profound true knowledge of God from experience.

John Wesley was a learned man and an avid reader, but he did not let his intellectual interests get in the way of faith or the practice of the virtues. Like Saint Francis, he revered the unknown common people whom Christ blessed made his priority as recipients of the Good news.

Francis of Assisi and John Wesley also shared that inner freedom that comes from giving oneself wholly without reservation to the will of God.

Each of these saints developed a covenantal communion committed to remembering their way of life and continuing it as a form of Christian discipleship.

The statements made by Franciscans and Methodists often take the same approach to the problems in the world of war and poverty, sharing common convictions and a common spirit.

It is said of Saint Francis – quite untrue, historically, as it happens – that he advised his friars to ‘Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.’ It seems it was first written only in the last century by Reinhold Niebhur, but it is the sort of advice that one could equally imagine being attributed too to John Wesley.

It is no accident that when the time in the Church year between early September and early October was being designated by the Churches as ‘Creation Time’ that it should begin with the Orthodox New Year, and end at the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi.

But, you may ask, what has that to do with this evening’s Gospel reading, the Gospel reading for Harvest services this year in the Revised Common Lectionary?

Part of the life of Saint Francis includes the ‘Legend of the Three Companions’ which includes this story.

One day, while he was praying enthusiastically to the Lord, Saint Francis received this response: ‘Francis, everything you loved carnally and desired to have, you must despise and hate, if you wish to know my will. Because once you begin doing this, what before seemed delightful and sweet will be unbearable and bitter; and what before made you shudder will offer you great sweetness and enormous delight.’

He was overjoyed at this and was comforted by the Lord. One day he was riding his horse near Assisi, when he met a leper. And, even though he usually shuddered at lepers, he made himself dismount, and gave him a coin, kissing his hand as he did so.

After he accepted a kiss of peace from him, Saint Francis got back on his horse and continued on his way. He then began to consider himself less and less, until, by God’s grace, he came to complete victory over himself.

After a few days, he moved to a hospice of lepers, taking with him a large sum of money. Calling them all together, as he kissed the hand of each, he gave them alms. When he left there, what before had been bitter, that is, to see and touch lepers, was turned into sweetness.

For, as he said, the sight of lepers was so bitter to him, that he refused not only to look at them, but even to approach their dwellings. If he happened to come near their houses or to see them, even though he was moved by piety to give them alms through an intermediary, he always turned away his face and held his nose. With the help of God’s grace, he became such a servant and friend of the lepers, that, as he testified in his Testament, he stayed among them and served them with humility.

Our care for the environment cannot be separated from care for those who are on the margins of society. The Samaritan leper in this evening’s Gospel story is on the margins because of his health, his religious background, his ethnic background, his appearance, his social status … all the reasons that we, that I, find for discriminating against people.

Despite, all his great concerns for those on the margins, Francis admits his difficulties with the very sort of person who is at the heart of our Gospel story this evening.

No matter how often he showed himself to the priests, this one healed leper among ten was never going to be given a clean bill of health.

In a lecture this time last year, I was engaging students in the links between the Eucharist and the Creation. Later, in an email, a student quoted the late Father Herbert Edwin William Slade (1912-1999), a priest of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist or the Cowley Fathers in Oxford, who wrote:

The Eucharist is the supreme model of an intimacy with nature which is universal. All creation is God’s body. God indwells all of his creatures. God’s Spirit is present in all that God has made. Therefore, our intimacy with creation must never stop short at contemplative admiration.

God’s harvest, the Kingdom of God, is greater than our imaginations. It includes all aspects and dimensions of creation, the harvest of the fields, and a harvest of people, including even those I, the high priests, and Francis of Assisi are in danger of ignoring and leaving behind.

Who are the equivalent of the Samaritans and the lepers we are danger of counting out, leaving to one side, in the harvest the Church could be reaping today?

The harvest is greater than we can imagine, greater than we want to admit.

And constantly, Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, and Christ, yes Christ himself, challenge me to rethink my harvest values.

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

The Embury and Heck Memorial Methodist Church and the surrounding churchyard in Ballingrane, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for the Harvest Thanksgiving Service in Ballingrane Methodist Church on Monday 9 October 2017.

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