Sunday, 18 August 2019

Facing the challenges
brought by a time when
‘Water and fire shall rot’

‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens’ (Luke 12: 54) … clouds above the beach in Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 18 August 2019,

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IX)

11.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

The Readings: Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80: 1-2, 9-20; Hebrews 11: 29 to 12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56. There is a link to the readings HERE.

‘I have a baptism with which to be baptized’ (Luke 12: 50) … the new font in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

When I was a student at the Irish School of Ecumenics in the early 1980s, we all had to do a residential placement in Northern Ireland in a church that was in a tradition other than our own. I spent time with Shankill Road Methodist Church in Belfast, while others went to Roman Catholic, Presbyterian or Anglican churches.

One Anglican student, from Barbados and now a priest in Massachusetts, was placed with the Redemptorists in Clonard Monastery.

As his placement came to end, there was one experience he had not yet explored. On his last Sunday evening, he went to hear Ian Paisley preach in the Martyrs’ Memorial Church on Ravenhill Road.

When he returned to Clonard Monastery, unscathed, an old priest asked him, tongue in cheek, ‘Well, did the Big Man give you an old-style Redemptorist sermon filled with hellfire and brimstone?’

Perhaps this is the sort of sermon some people may expect in churches this morning with these lectionary readings.

The Prophet Isaiah, in words that echo the Psalm, speaks of vineyards that yield only wild grapes (verses 2, 4); breaking and trampling down walls (verse 4); vines giving way to briars and thorns (verse 6); bloodshed instead of justice, a cry instead of righteousness (verse 7).

The Epistle reading speaks of mockings and floggings (verse 36), chains and jails (Hebrews 11: 36), prophets being stoned to death, sawn in two and killed by the sword (verse 37), or wandering in deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes (verse 38).

And then, we hear the warnings in the Gospel reading of fire on earth (verse 49), families and households divided and fighting each other to the death (verses 52-53), people being blown about by the storms and tempests of the day (verses 54-56).

They are images that might have inspired Ian Paisley’s sermons. But they have inspired too great creative and literary minds in the English language, from William Shakespeare and William Blake to TS Eliot in the Four Quartets:

This is the death of earth.

Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire. ( – Little Gidding)

If we dismiss these apocalyptic images because they have been hijacked by fundamentalist extremists, for their own religious and political ideals, then we miss an opportunity to allow our values to challenge those ways we may be allowing our lives to drift along without question or examination.

Fire and water were a challenge for me a few years ago during a visit to Longford. One Sunday afternoon, three of us headed off on what we had come to call our church history ‘field trips.’ We wanted to see the completed restoration work at Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Longford.

The cathedral was destroyed in a blazing fire early on Christmas morning 10 years ago [2009], but was restored and rebuilt so beautifully that it has been voted Ireland’s favourite building.

Outside, it still looks like a grey, classical revival, fortress-style cathedral. But inside it is filled with light and joy. It has risen from the ashes, and its restoration is truly a story of redemption and resurrection.

As we walked into the cathedral, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful baptismal font that has been placed at the main entrance door to the cathedral.

The font was sculpted by Tom Glendon and the blue mosaic work by Laura O’Hagan is a creative representation of the Water of Life.

This font is a challenge to all who enter the church and is placed exactly where it should be, for Baptism is entry to the Church.

Baptism is not a naming ceremony, it is not about my individual experience, it is never a private event. It is a public event, and it incorporates me into the unity, the community of the Body of Christ.

In this Gospel reading, Christ challenges us with three themes: Fire, Baptism and Division.

In the Bible, fire can represent the presence of God – think of the pillar of fire in the wilderness (Exodus 13: 17-22) or the tongues of flame at Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-4).

It can represent judgment (see Revelation 20: 7-10), and it can represent purification – the prophets Zachariah (13: 9) and Malachi (3: 2-3) speak of the refiner’s fire in which God purifies his people, as a refiner purifies silver by fire.

At the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2: 22-38), old Simeon foresees how the Christ Child ‘is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inward thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (verses 34-35).

The sword that pierces the soul of the Virgin Mary, the sword that has killed the prophets, the sword the divides families, is a reminder that Christ, who embodies the presence of God, simultaneously judges and purifies.

In the New Testament, Baptism represents both judgment and purification and Saint John the Baptist connects it with fire (Luke 3: 16-17).

In this Gospel reading, however, Christ is referring not to the baptism he brings but to the baptism he receives. He not only brings the fire of judgment and purification, but he bears it himself also.

The Kingdom of God he proclaims is governed:

● not by might but by forgiveness (think of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, Luke 11: 4);
● not by fear but by courage (‘be not afraid’ in Luke 1: 13, 30, 2: 10, 5: 11, 8: 50, 12: 4, 7, 32);
● not by power but by humility (see Magnificat, Luke 1: 46-55).

But it is easy to be lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power rather than the promises that come with our Baptism.

In the second half of the Gospel reading, Christ chides the crowd for not recognising the signs he bears. They know how to forecast the weather, but they cannot forecast, watch for the signs of, the coming Kingdom of God.

There is a fashion in the Church today for ‘fresh expressions of the Church’ that blow where the wind blows. They seek to be fashionable and claim that they are relevant.

Sometimes, you may not know whether you are in a coffee shop or in a church, whether you are in the guiding hands of a barista or of a priest. The old forms of church have been abandoned, and with it we may ask whether they have thrown out the core content too.

I visited one of these churches recently. Yes, there was a rambling sermon of 35 or more minutes. Yes, there was a time of ‘fellowship’ where people turned around their chairs and were chummy with one another, in a clumsy sort of way.

There was one reading, but no Gospel reading. There was no confession and absolution, no Creedal statement, no Trinitarian formula in the prayers. The prayers prayed for those present and those like them, but there were no prayers for those outside, no prayers for a world that is divided and suffering, no challenge or judgment for those who have created the plight and sufferings of wars, refugees, racism, homelessness, economic injustice and climate change.

In this smug self-assurance, without any reference to the world outside, there was no challenge to discipleship, to live up to the promises and challenges of Baptism.

And, needless to say, there was no Sacrament, and no hint of there ever being a sacramental ministry.

Content had been abandoned for the sake of form. But the form had become a charade. For the sake of relevance, the church had become irrelevant.

The challenge of our Baptism is a challenge for the Church to be a sign of, a sacrament of, the Kingdom of God.

We can be distracted by the demands and fashions of what pass as ‘fresh expressions of Church’ and never meet the needs of a divided and suffering world.

Or we can be nourished by Word and Sacrament and respond to the demands of our Baptism in a discipleship that seeks to challenge and confront a suffering and divided world with the values and promises of the Kingdom of God.

But it is costly. And in that struggle, like Simeon warns Mary, we may find ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

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

‘End of the beach’ at Platanias in Rethymnon … but do we know how to read the signs of the end of the times? (see Luke 12: 54-56) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Luke 12: 49-56 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said to his disciples:]

49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’

‘When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes’ (Isaiah 5: 4) … grapes on a vine in Cordoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect of the Word:

Merciful Lord,
cleanse and defend your Church by the sacrifice of Christ.
United with him in holy baptism,
give us grace to receive with thanksgiving
the fruits of his redeeming work
and daily follow in his way;
through the same Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
In that new world where you reveal the fulness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet
of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hymns:

645, Father, hear the prayer we offer (CD 49)
636, May the mind of Christ my Saviour (CD 36)
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart (CD 21)

‘My beloved had a vineyard’ (Isaiah 5: 1) … in a vineyard in Rivesaltes near Perpignan in France (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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