20 September 2009

What hope can we offer to the children of Swaziland?

Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint John’s Church, John Street, Kilkenny, Sunday 20 September 2009 (Trinity 15), 10 a.m., Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist: Joel 2: 21-27; Psalm 126; I Timothy 2: 1-7; Matthew 6: 25-33

May all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It’s wonderful to be here in Kilkenny this morning for your Harvest Thanksgiving, and I’d like to thank you and the Revd Elaine Murray for this kind invitation. I’m a regular visitor to Kilkenny, and you have to put up with me every month in the Diocesan Magazine, but I also read about you each month too. And so I already feel I know you.

With a name like mine, you can imagine that I have a lengthy connection with this diocese. Yes, it does go back generations and centuries. And it is a particular joy to be in Saint John’s for this year’s harvest because 500 years ago, Bishop Edmund Comerford, who died on Easter Day, 8 April 1509, was here as Prior of Saint John’s.

Edmund, we believe, was a brother of my direct ancestor, Richard Comerford of Ballybur, near Cuffesgrange. But I have to confess that, despite his Oxford education and being an Augustinian friar, Edmund was not a very model bishop or prior.

At the same time as being Prior of Saint John’s from 1498, he was Dean of Saint Canice’s from 1487, Rector of Callan from 1498 as well as a number of other parishes in the diocese, and Bishop of Ferns from 1505.

He probably never moved out of Kilkenny for very long when it came to looking after his responsibilities in the Diocese of Ferns, and he used all his power and privileges to look after the interests of the Butler family and his own family.

Edmund made special pleas to the Lateran – the equivalent in those days of the Vatican – for the ordination of an illegitimate young man, William Comerford, secured him a prebendal stall in Saint Canice’s that gave him a good income from church lands, and eventually manoeuvred things so that William succeeded Edmund as Dean of Saint Canice’s.

All along, we assumed in the family that William was the bishop’s nephew. But as I went through the Lateran archives it turns out that William was nothing of the sort … he was the bishop’s son.

Well, I suppose there is no point in exercising nepotism unless you can keep things in the family.

What a different sort of bishop he was to his successor, Bishop Michael Burrows. What a different set of priorities. What a different way of relating the priorities of the church to the needs of the world.

Last Sunday, in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Bishop Michael completed his organ marathon, having visited every one of the 149 churches in these dioceses, playing Come, ye thankful people, come on the organ to raise funds for three projects in Ireland, Korea and Swaziland:

1, Protestant Aid: The recession means more and more unemployment and more and more families coming under huge financial pressure.

2, Korea: Archdeacon Paul Mooney’s outreach ministry in the Anglican Cathedral in Seoul, a huge and problem-laden city in Korea where many who benefit from the ministry can give little to support it.

3, Swaziland: Bishops’ Appeal is supporting USPG Ireland’s work in Swaziland. Bishop Michael chairs both Bishops’ Appeal and USPG Ireland, the oldest Anglican mission agency.

As far as I remember, Elaine – or as I see she’s now being referred to in the Diocesan Magazine, the “Rev Assembly” – was also the USPG representative when she was a student. And I see in blazing lights on the internet Tom Rothwell making a presentation on behalf of Saint John’s to the bishop.

In these times of recession, at a time when things are getting tougher for everybody, the need for organisations like Protestant Aid becomes more and more obvious.

But as things become more difficult at home, as the harvest at home leaves us with fewer and fewer pickings, one of the easiest ways to make savings is to cut back on our support for projects like Paul Mooney’s work in Seoul Cathedral or USPG’s work with the church in countries like Swaziland.

It’s not that people are so cruel and lacking in compassion and understanding to say things such as charity ought to begin at home. But it is easier to cut back on projects and spending that won’t be seen at home.

And that’s what is happening to government funding too. Who is going to notice a million here or a million there from the overseas aid budget? Few of us here, I’m sure. Politicians weighing up their options and looking only at short-term consequences, may say decisions like that are not going to lose them any votes. But it is going to lose lives.

I know only too well that farmers here haven’t been getting their share of the harvest this year. When the Apostle Paul is writing to Timothy, in the epistle reading we shared this morning, he talks about how we must share in suffering, and how the farmer who does the work ought to have the first share of the crops.

But for a few moments let me share some of the experiences of the harvest in Africa from the students and ordinands in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute who are continuing Elaine’s work on behalf of USPG today.

The students have been arriving back in the theological institute over this weekend, and as you can imagine the place has been abuzz, with everybody catching up on their summer holidays and their summer placements the length and breadth of this island.

But one student, the senior student, Paul Bogle, instead of taking a summer placement in an Irish parish, decided to work his summer placement through USPG with an Anglican parish in Swaziland, with Andrew and Rosemary Symonds, who have been USPG mission companions in Swaziland since 2005.

Andrew is the training officer for the Diocese of Swaziland and is a parish priest or rector, while Rosemary facilitates key community projects.

Paul was inspired to go to Swaziland after the students – men and women – took part in a sponsored shave earlier this year on Ash Wednesday to support USPG’s work in Swaziland – the same project Bishop Michael has been raising funds for during his organ marathon.

Children at Usuthu Mission Primary School in Swaziland (Photograph: Paul Bogle)

Now Swaziland is about as far away as one of our students could go on a parish placement. This small, land-locked country in southern Africa has a population of just one million people. But Swaziland has possibly the highest level of HIV/AIDS in the world: 40 per cent of the people there are HIV+, many children are born HIV+, and 20,000 new HIV cases are reported or diagnosed each year.

But there are only 2,000 hospital beds in Swaziland. This means most of the people are left to die at home.

To compound these problems, 40 per cent of the people are unemployed, and 69 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. And Swaziland now has 80,000 to 90,000 orphans, mainly because of HIV/AIDS – it is impossible for us to imagine the scale of this problem; in Ireland, it would mean having half a million orphans.

But for many people the biggest problem is not HIV – it is the problem of what they are going to eat. For many mothers, the only way to feed themselves is to sell themselves.

And because of the high infection rate, the HIV virus is spreading more rapidly that in other countries.

Life expectancy is low, the mortality rate is high, and so 15 per cent of households are headed by a child. Now, how can you expect a child to feed children, to look after their education, health and clothing?

With the support of the Bishops’ Appeal, USPG Ireland is working with the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Swaziland to provide feeding programmes and to provide training in horticulture and market gardening so that the diet of people and the ability of families to be self-sufficient can be improved significantly – a true harvest thanksgiving project.

To help this work, it has been possible too to make use of previously under-used church lands. All this is set in the context of the local church’s anti-HIV programme and the need to give people confidence that there can be a sustainable future for their communities, that Swaziland is not going to implode.

Hope is so important for people in Swaziland. But then, isn’t hope central to living out the Gospel?

Hope is at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning, which comes from the middle of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. As a lecturer in theology, I sometimes think of the Sermon on the Mount as an ideal model for a lecture or seminar on discipleship, and on practising piety:

In the chapter in which we find this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus has already spoken about giving alms in humility; about prayer, including praying simply and praying in the words of the Lord’s Prayer; about fasting without being dismal, but fasting joyfully; about refusing to hoard and keep things all for myself; about looking at things in the best possible light; and about putting God before our wealth.

In the section we shared this morning, verses 25 to 33, Christ hopes the disciples will realise that life is about more than our personal comforts. There’s more, in the following chapter, but there’s enough there for us and our harvest thought in the few verses we read this morning, I think.

It is very difficult if you are a 12 or 14-year-old girl looking after your younger sisters and brothers to continue to have hope if the younger ones are asking you last thing every night and first thing every morning “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” (Matthew 6: 31).

And the only way we take those worries seriously, give those children hope, is to support projects such as USPG’s work in Swaziland, through Bishop Michael’s fund-raising campaign, by encouraging other students to follow in Paul Bogle’s footsteps, or directly supporting the work of mission agencies like USPG.

The harvest has been very poor here this year. And as the recession bites, those who have lost their jobs, those who have suffered pay cuts, farmers who are going to find this a very bleak autumn and winter indeed must be taken to heart.

But if we fret for ourselves and not for the children of Swaziland, can we say that we are striving first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness? For as Jesus tells us this morning; “… your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 32-33).

And now 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 Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist in Saint John’s Church, John Street, Kilkenny, on Sunday, 20 September 2009.

Bishop Michael Burrows accepting a donation from Tom Rothwell of Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny, following fund-raising for the bishop’s Musical Marathon

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