Sunday, 23 July 2017

‘You have led us to the living water.
Refresh and sustain us on our journey’

The Baptism fount in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

Sunday 23 July 2017, Holy Baptism.

Readings:
Genesis 7: 1, 7-16; John 15: 1-11.

You may have noticed there are two fonts here in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeston.

One is an old, historical font, moved from another church in the past into the porch. The other, the one we are using for this afternoon’s Baptism, is just inside the Church door.

The position of both these fonts is important. They are not there by accident, or for convenience, as though the back of the church is a good place to store them when they are not in use.

As we come into Church, they are reminders in that position that Baptism is our entry into the Church.

Baptism is not a naming ceremony. Louis is already well-known by the name his parents have given him. Nor is it a ceremony of welcome into the family. Louis is well-loved by his grandparents, uncles and aunts, the wider family.

Baptism is our entrance into the Church, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. That is why the font is at the point where people enter the church, where people are welcomed into the Church.

There are eight sides to this font, reminding us of the family of Noah, all eight of them, who were saved from the waters of the flood in the ark. All eight of them. These eight we heard about in our first reading represent not a select group but the whole of humanity.

Sometimes, the inside of a church looks like an up-turned boat, the inside of an ark. That is why this part of the church is called the nave. In Baptism, we are all in the one boat together, we are all formed into one new extended family, we are all in this together, equals because we are one in Christ.

In the waters of Baptism, we are saved by being incorporated into the Body of Christ. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us.

Think of how the waters of creation are at the beginning of the Creation story; the slaves are brought from slavery to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea; Christ lets the Samaritan woman at the well know that he is the Living Water – as the lettering in the Sanctuary remind us, he is the Fountain of Life.

Water pours from his side at the Crucifixion, at the end of his Passion. And the Disciples know he is Risen when they met him in the morning by the waters of the lake.

And in our Gospel reading, we are reminded that we are grafted on to the one vine. The vine is not just a reminder of Louis’s French connections. The vine knows of no individual grape.

We cannot produce the good wine from one grape. Baptism is our grafting onto the one vine. Baptism is our incorporation into the Body of Christ.

There is one water of Baptism. And when Louis, in time, comes to receive Holy Communion, he will be showing how he is fully part of the one body in the one bread and in the one wine.

And so, as members of the Body of Christ, we share the water of Louis’s Baptism, must keep him in our prayers constantly after this day.

In the words of the Post-Communion Prayer today, we pray:

God of our pilgrimage,
you have led us to the living water.
Refresh and sustain us
as we go forward on our journey,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This reflection was shared at a Baptism in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, on Sunday 23 July 2017.

‘With thee is the fountain of life’ … a panel in the sanctuary in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Moving from crisis to Kairos
in the fields of God’s harvest

Fields of green and gold in rural Hertfordshire near the High Leigh Conference (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 23 July 2017,

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity,


9.30 a.m., Castletown Church, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer.

11.30 a.m., Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, The Parish Eucharist.

Readings: Genesis 28: 10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 23-24; Romans 8: 12-25; Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43.

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

I have been away for a few days, at the annual conference of the mission agency USPG, the United Society Partners in the Gospel, which is one of the oldest Anglican mission agencies.

I am a trustee of USPG for some years now, and I am almost a life-time supporter of USPG although I have also worked for other mission agencies.

We were meeting in the English countryside, about half an hour west of Stansted Airport and about an hour south of Cambridge.

This is a beautiful part of England, on the edges of East Anglia, on the borders of Hertfordshire and Essex. The fields are green and gold under the blue skies and the spreading chestnut trees. The Lea Valley is busy with barges and boats on the rivers and canals. There are country pubs with decking that allows you to sit in the sun on the river banks. And the blackberries are early in coming to full fruit in the hedgerows along the country lanes.

This is a part of England where east meets west, for during one walk along a country lane and crossing one of those rivers I realised I was crossing the meridian line, the Greenwich Mean Line.

But east meets west in another way in the conversations at the USPG conference in High Leigh last week.

The conference theme was ‘Serving Church, Strengthening Communities.’ We were looking at how USPG is involved with Anglicans around the world, engaged in enlivening faith, unlocking potentials and promoting justice, empowering churches and communities to be the agents of change in the communities they serve.

The speakers were from these islands, but from places across the world, from the West Indies to South Africa and India, from Brazil to Burma, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

We looked at mission through five themes: protecting health, growing the Church, enabling livelihoods, promoting justice and responding to crises. We were challenged to relate the mission of the church to social justice, gender-based violence, climate change and the refugee crisis in Europe.

As a trustee of USPG, I chaired the question-and-answer session on Wednesday morning with Bishop David Hamid, the Suffragan Bishop in the Diocese of Europe, who spoke movingly of the refugee crisis that is a major part of the mission of churches in his diocese:

● in Tangier, Casablanca and Gibraltar, where Africa meets Europe;

● in Malta and Lampadusa, where refugees arrive in their thousands every day in perilous conditions;

● in Finland, where refugees from South Sudan are being settled in a climate and environment that is so alien to them.

But, of course, I was particularly moved that I was asked to chair this session when he also spoke of the refugee crisis in Greece.

Bishop David told us that many NGO agencies are moving out of Greece to the next humanitarian crisis, and declaring that there is no crisis in Greece. But he said the crisis continues and the Churches are there, remaining on the ground for the long-term.

He told us that 60,000 refugees and migrants are still stuck in Greece, and as they move on they are replaced by more.

He said the Churches in Greece had moved from a crisis to a Kairos moment, finding they are present at the right and appropriate moment.

The response to the crisis in Greece began when Canon Malcolm Bradshaw of Saint Paul’s Church, the Anglican Church in Athens tried to respond to the plight of 17,000 refugees in November 2014. By June 2015, this number had almost doubled to 31,000, and there was a shortage of food and water on the islands.

The Churches came together following an alert about 500 people who were stranded in August 2015 on the small island of Farmakonisi, which is barren and has no natural supply of fresh water.

He reminded us of the tragic story of three-year-old Alan Kurdi from Syria, drowned on a beach in Turkey in September 2015 while his family was fleeing from an ISIS attack on their home and were trying to reach the Greek island of Kos, just 30 minutes away. That tragedy and the image of his body lying on a beach near Bodrum mobilised a wider public response.

By that month, September 2015, 5,000 refugees were arriving every day in Greece. USPG responded immediately and launched an appeal on behalf of Bishop David’s diocese.

Bishop David described this as the greatest crisis to hit Europe since World War II. But he said it had transformed the ministry in his diocese and brought the churches in Greece together for the first time in their response. A crisis moment has turned to a Kairos moment.

The word κρίσις (krísis) is used 46 times in the New Testament. It refers to a judgment or a decision that requires deciding between right and wrong.

The word καιρός (kairos), used 86 times, refers to an opportune time, a moment or a season such as harvest time. The word is used specifically to refer to ‘the appointed time in the purpose of God,’ the time when God acts.

A Kairos moment is a moment when we move from the crisis when we choose what is right for the Kingdom of God to seizing the opportunity to live out the values of the Kingdom of God.

The mission of USPG, the mission of the Church, is not only about responding to the crisis moments we face, but offering moments that give us glimpses, snatches, of what the Kingdom of God is like.

We work with all sorts of people, from all sorts of backgrounds, from countries all over the world. We don’t discriminate against people, deciding the needs of some are worthy of response than those of others because of religion, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, age or gender.

The need is compelling enough to call for our response in Christ’s name.

When I posted about this from the conference on Wednesday, a reply on Facebook said: ‘It is good that Jesus gave us the solution to all refugee problems. It is interesting he gave it in the form of a command … ‘Pray for your enemies!’

I had to tell this distant cousin: ‘Refugees are not our enemies. Once again you use Prayer to push a frightening political agenda. The command is simpler. Love one another. That’s 50% of the Gospel, and then the other half fits in simply, Love God.’

In the refugee crisis in Europe, there is no room for discrimination.

So, turning to this morning’s Gospel reading, who is being burned … and who is doing the burning?

And who will be weeping and gnashing their teeth?

Contrary to the shoddy readings of this passage that I often hear, Christians are not asked to burn anyone or anything at all. And, if we have enemies, we are called not to burn them but to love them.

The word we have traditionally translated as tares or weeds (verses 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 36, 38, 40) is the Greek word ζιζάνια (zizánia), a type of wild rice grass, probably a type of darnel or noxious weed. It looks like wheat until the plants mature and the ears open, and the seeds are a strong soporific poison.

Christ explains to the Disciples that he is the sower (verse 37), the good seed is not the Word, but the Children of the Kingdom (verse 38), the weeds are the ‘Children of the Evil One’ (verse 38), and the field is the world (verse 38).

The harvest is not gathered by the disciples or the children of the kingdom, but by angels sent by the Son of Man (verses 39, 41).

It is an apocalyptic image, describing poetically and dramatically a future cataclysm, and not an image to describe what should be happening today.

It is imagery that draws on the apocalyptic images in the Book of Daniel, where the three young men who are faithful to God are tried in the fires of the furnace, yet come out alive, stronger and firmer in their faith (see Daniel 3: 1-10).

The slaves or δοῦλοι (douloi), the people who want to separate the darnel from the wheat (verse 27-28), are the disciples: Saint Paul introduces himself in his letters with phrases like Παῦλος δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ (Paul, a doulos or slave, or servant of Jesus Christ), (see Romans 1: 1, Philippians 1: 1, Titus 1: 1), and the same word is used by James (see James 1: 1), Peter (see II Peter 1: 1) and Jude (see Jude 1) to introduce themselves in their letters.

In the Book of Revelation, this word is used to describe the Disciples and the Church (see Revelation 1: 1; 22: 3).

In other words, the Apostolic writers see themselves as slaves in the field, working at Christ’s command in the world.

When it comes to explaining the parable to the Disciples in the second part of our reading (verses 36-43), the references to the slaves in the first part (verses 27-28) are no longer there. It is not that the slaves have disappeared – Christ is speaking directly to those who would want to uproot the tares but who would find themselves uprooting the wheat too.

The weeding of the field is God’s job, not ours. The reapers, not the slaves, will gather in both the weeds and the wheat, the weeds first and then the wheat (verse 30).

On my strolls through the fields of green and gold near High Leigh during breaks from the USPG conference, I could see how farmers are baling the hay and taking in the harvest in many places already. In a few weeks’ time, many farmers will be burning off the stubble on their fields to prepare the soil for autumn sowing and for planting new crops. In this sense, the farmer understands burning as purification and preparation – it is not as harsh as city dwellers think.

It is not for us to decide who is in and who is out in Christ’s field, in the Kingdom of God. That is Christ’s task alone.

Christ gently cautions the Disciples against rash decisions about who is in and who is out.

Gently, he lets them see that the tares are not damaging the growth of the wheat, they just grow alongside it and amidst it.

But so often we decide to assume God’s role. We do it constantly in society, and we do it constantly in the Church, deciding who should be in and who should be out.

The harvest comes at the end of time, not now, and I should not hasten it even if the reapers seem to tarry.

The weeds we identify and want to uproot may turn out to be wheat, what we presume to be wheat because it looks like us may turn out to be weeds.

We assume the role of the reapers every time we decide we would be better off without someone in our society or in the Church because we disagree with them or we see them as different, as outsiders, as a challenge to issues that we mistake for core values.

The core values, as Christ himself explains, again and again, are loving God and loving others.

This morning’s reading is not a set of instructions on how to behave in the Church or in mission today. Christ leaves that to the future. This morning we are called to grow and not to worry about the tares. That growth must always emphasise love first.

When governments and security forces have said they are rooting out violent jihadists from society, the average, gentle, ordinary Muslim has suffered grossly. When some members of the Church have sought to ‘out’ or ‘throw out’ people because of their sexuality they have caused immense personal tragedy for individuals, for families, for friends – weeping and gnashing of teeth indeed.

When I want a Church or a society that looks like me, I eventually end up living on a desert island or as a member of a sect or society of one – and there I might just find out too how unhappy I am with myself!

But if I allow myself to grow in faith and trust and love with others, I may, I just may, to my surprise, find that they too are wheat rather than weeds, and they may discover the same about me.

In the Orthodox Church, before the Divine Liturgy begins, the deacon exclaims to the priest: «Καιρός του ποιήσα τω Κυρίω» (Kairos tou poiesai to Kyrio), ‘It is time [Kairos] for the Lord to act’ – in other words, the time of the Liturgy is a Kairos moment, an intersection between our time and Eternity.

As we worship God in Church this morning, we are invited to enter into God’s Kairos moment, to once again be part of God’s response to the crises in the world, to be signs of the Kingdom.

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

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 23 July 2017.

Fields of green and gold south of Cambridge last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Collect:

Merciful God,
you have prepared for those who love you
such good things as pass our understanding:
Pour into our hearts such love toward you
that we, loving you above all things,
may obtain your promises,
which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of our pilgrimage,
you have led us to the living water.
Refresh and sustain us
as we go forward on our journey,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

With Bishop David Hamid at the USPG conference after Wednesday’s session on the refugee crisis