17 July 2011

Making sense of an old plaque on the church tower

The railway viaduct at Balbriggan, close to Saint George’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 17 July 2011: The Fourth Sunday after Trinity.

12 noon: The Eucharist (Holy Communion), Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

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 God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Psalm 132, quoted on a plaque above the door at Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Have you ever noticed how often we walk around with our heads down – as if we are more afraid of what we are walking on instead of anticipating joyfully what is ahead of us?

Have you ever looked up on your way into this church? There is biblical text on a plaque above the main door on the south side of tower, and it reads:

I will not suffer mine eyes
to sleep nor mine eye-lids
to slumber • neither the
temples of my head to
take any rest;
Until I find out a place
for the temple of the Lord:, an habitation
for the mighty God of
– Psalm 132: 4-5.

The plaque probably dates from 1833. But the quotation from Psalm 132 is a text that relates to us today, that relates very much to our Bible readings, our lectionary readings, this morning.

Jacob has a very difficult night’s sleep – well who would not have a difficult night’s sleep after choosing a rock as a pillow?

In his dreams, he sees angels going up and down the ladder, the stairway, between heaven and earth. And then in the midst of all this rising and falling, looking up and looking down, he has a vision of the Lord God – not a vision to satisfy his own personal piety or one that gives him a sense of spiritual satisfaction, but one that is disturbing in a way.

For the God that Jacob has a vision of, an encounter with, is not just his personal God, a God to be locked away in the crevices of his heart and in the recesses of his soul.

This is the God who promises not just personal future security for Jacob and his family. This is the God who promises that through the descendants of Jacob the whole earth shall be blessed, that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”

Even though Jacob, when he wakes up, realises that God is in the very place where he has been, God’s promise extends to every corner of the earth ... “to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.”

We are very happy to claim that God is in our own little corner – and rightly so.

But are we as quick to realise that God is present in so many other little corners too?

The quotation on the tower was chosen to give thanks for rebuilding this church after a fire in 1833. But it is a text that relates very much to our Bible readings, our lectionary readings this morning.

Like Jacob before them, the builders of the church wanted to acknowledge the presence of God in a holy place, and to mark that presence in stone.

That is valid. And it brings about a work of great beauty, a legacy that we should cherish and rejoice in.

But there are other holy places too.

I was saddened last month to read the story of an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn who attacked his newly-married neighbour, pouring beer over her, punching her and verbally abusing her as an “Arab terrorist.”

The woman is a Muslim, but not an Arab – she is Turkish.

When her husband, who is also Turkish, came to her rescue, he too was punched in the face and verbally abused in similar terms.

When the police arrived, the man sought refuge in a local synagogue. When he was arrested, his wife and 20 neighbours signed a petition calling for the victim couple to be evicted.

Of course, Turks are not Arabs, not all Arabs are Muslims, and had the attacker been a Christian or any other religion, his behaviour would have been outrageous too.

Of course, Turks are not Arabs, not all Arabs are Muslims, and had the attacker been a Christian or any other religion, his behaviour would have been outrageous too. And, although the two have no connections, the incident pales in comparison with the murder of a small Jewish boy from a Hasidic neighbourhood of Brooklyn this week.

But so often, we invest so much of ethnic and national identity in our sacred places and our religious identity that we are in danger of squeezing God out of our sacred buildings and squeezing God out of our belief systems, so that they only serve me and my prejudices.

The former Osman Agha Mosque on the harbour-front on the remote Greek island of Kastellórizo, now used as a museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Last week, I visited a number of mosques and churches in both Turkey and Greece. In both countries so much national identity has been confused with religious identity, that for many decades it was difficult to be either a Christian and a Turk or a Muslim and a Greek.

The narthex of the Church of Panayia Pyrgiotissa in Levessi (Kayaköy), above Fethiye in south-west Turkey ... the Christian villages were forced to leave in 1923, and the church was used as a mosque until the 1960s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Churches became a challenge to the integrity of Turkish identity; mosques became a challenge to the integrity of Greek identity. Both ceased in the eyes of others to be places of worship, places where those who worship in them – but no-one else – could say: “Surely the Lord is in this place … This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

How do we tell the weeds from the flowers? … the wild garden in the former churchyard of Saint Mary-at-Lambeth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

So often, it is easy for me to confuse my prejudices with my religion, my presumptions with faith, the barriers that have been built by my communities over generations with the legacy of God’s promise.

So often, it is easy to look at the harvest God has for us in mission, and to see not wheat but what I regard as the weeds.

Who am I to say that what God has sown is merely a weed to be uprooted?

Every farmer knows that a field of wheat, a field of potatoes, a field of grass at this time of the year is also full with red poppies.

Driving through the countryside in Kildare and Carlow two weeks ago, the fields of green and gold were speckled with glorious red too.

Who am I to say that the weeds I despise are not precious flowers in the eyes of God?

And the more I want to weed out those I do not want within the Church, the more I am creating a sect that is in danger of dwindling in numbers until I am left as the only member.

So often, so many think the promises of Christ, the revelation of God in Christ, are just for one, small group, and want to do the weeding themselves rather than leaving both growth and weeding in the hands of God, to God’s discretion.

The true test of true religion is found not in the barriers we erect to the outside world, but in the fruit our faith bears (see Matthew 7: 16). And, as the Apostle Paul tells us in our New Testament reading this morning, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”

The promises to Jacob during that restless, dream-filled night, were fulfilled in his descendants, but in so many exciting ways and people, that they are to be found in all nations.

As Simeon realised in the Temple when he saw the Christ Child, his eyes had seen God’s salvation which he had prepared “in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to to the nations” (see Luke 2: 31-32).

Of course, this church here is truly the house of God and the gate of heaven, and habitations for the mighty God of Jacob.

But I must never confuse our churches and their structures – either the buildings or the denominations – with the Kingdom of God.

God’s hopes, God’s plans are for the whole of creation, so that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

And God’s plans for the Church, for the world and for his kingdom know no ethnic boundaries, and they do not allow us to decide who are weeds and who are harvest.

Our churches are truly the dwelling place of God when their doors are open to all, regardless of their background, their ethnicity or the ways we decide they are different. For each and every one of us, so many that we are as impossible to count as the dust of the earth. It is a promise repeated to Jacob later in another way: ‘I will … make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number’ (Genesis 32: 12; cf Genesis 28: 14). Each and every one of us is counted among those grains of sand. Yet each and every one of is unique and created truly in the image and likeness of God.

And so, 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, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, on Sunday 17 July 2011.


O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
Increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide,
we may so pass through things temporal
that we finally lose not the things eternal:
Grant this, heavenly Father,
for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us at the table of life and hope.
Teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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