14 October 2015

Finding our treasure in heaven
so we can go and follow Jesus

Kerry Crescent in Calne, Wiltshire, recalls a FitzMaurice family title and a story told by Charles Gore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Wednesday 14 October 2015,

5 p.m., The Community Eucharist,

Readings, Collect and Post-Communion of the 19th Sunday after Trinity:

Job 23: 1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22: 1-15; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31.

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

Bishop Charles Gore was the son of Irish-born parents. His statue stands at the west entrance of Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Calne is a small town in the middle of the of the Wiltshire countryside where the street names include Shelburne Road and Kerry Crescent.

I was wondering about the Irish connections with this West Country town when I heard a story about Charles Gore (1853-1932), one of the great, almost formidable, theologians at the turn of the 19th century and 20th centuries. He was the editor of Lux Mundi (1881), an influential collection of essays; the founder of the Community of the Resurrection (1892); and the first Bishop of Birmingham (1905).

Gore was also from a well-known Irish family; his brother was born in Dublin Castle and his father was born in the Vice-Regal Lodge, now Arás and Uachtarain.

But formidable theologians are also allowed to play pranks on the unsuspecting. And it is told that when he was a canon of Westminster Abbey Charles Gore loved to play a particular prank on friends and acquaintances.

He would enjoy showing visitors to the abbey the tomb in Saint Andrew’s Chapel of one of his collateral ancestors, the 3rd Earl of Kerry, with an inscription that ends with the words, highlighted in black letters and in double quotation marks: “hang all the law and the prophets.”

On closer inspection, he would point out, these words are preceded by the words declaring he was “ever studious to fulfil those two great commandments on which he had been taught by his divine Master ...” “…hang all the law and the prophets.”

Francis Thomas FitzMaurice (1740-1818) was a rich young man. He was born in Dublin in 1740, and was a child of only seven when his father died and he inherited the family title as the 3rd Earl of Kerry and vast estates, including 20,000 acres in Lixnaw, Co Kerry.

He was grief-stricken when his wife, Anastasia Daly from Galway, died in 1799. A widowed and a sad man, he sold all that he had, including innumerable houses and fields, and gave to the poor. He spent the rest of his days in London, and when he died in 1818 he was buried with his wife in Saint Andrew’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey. His family’s connections with Lixnaw, dating back to the 13th century, came to an end.

He was has left without house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields. His titles and any remaining estates were inherited by a cousin, the Home Secretary, Henry Petty-FitzMaurice (1780-1863), 3rd Lord Lansdowne, the son of the Dublin-born British Prime Minister who gives his name to places in Dublin such as Lansdowne Road and Shelburne Road.

This grief-stricken rich young man had not sought high political office, praise or acclamation. But he found something else, for that monument in Westminster Abbey says: “Piety to God, and benevolence to man were the principles which occupied his thoughts and directed his life. Actuated by a lively sense of religion, he enjoyed that serenity of mind and cheerfulness of temper by which Christianity is so peculiarly distinguished.”

The FitzMaurice arms, recalling the Kerry and Lansdowne families, decorate the Lansdowne Strand Hotel in Calne, Wiltshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The rich young man who comes to Christ at the beginning of our Gospel reading this evening may lack nothing, has perhaps inherited a vast amount in his youth, but now he wants to inherit eternal life.

He wants eternal life, he says, but he fails to realise he has met the living God face-to-face, and he turns away.

This rich young man keeps all the commandments that are about loving my neighbour. When a similar episode occurs involving a scribe or a lawyer, the commandments are summarised in the two great commandments, about loving God and loving our neighbour referred to on Lord Kerry’s tomb in Westminster Abbey (Matthew 22: 34-40; Mark 12: 28-34; Luke 10: 25-28).

However, when this young lawyer tests Christ, we get a very different set of references to the commandments. And when the real challenge is put to him, he may as well have answered: “Hang all the law and the prophets.”

Christ has set out on the journey, on the way to Jerusalem, and Saint Mark’s Gospel is a challenge to follow him on that way, the way to the Cross, the way of discipleship.

As the journey begins, this rich young man runs up to Christ and bows down before him – kneels before him, almost like an act of adoration – and asks what he must do. But the rich young man is not willing to follow Christ on that way.

This is a sad story of a “failed vocation,” the only example we have of a potential disciple who comes on his own initiative and not at the call of Christ.

Did you seek your vocation or were you called? Truth to tell, it was probably a mixture of both for you.

But if you rush to Jesus, knell down before him and ask what you should do, do not be shocked or dismayed by the demands he can make on you.

This rich young man would follow Jesus. This man would knell down before Jesus. This man, when he hears a select listing of commandments from Jesus, thinks he is doing it all. Perhaps, like James and John in next Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mark 10: 35-45), he even thinks at the back of his mind: “I’m such a good catch, Jesus should be happy to have me as one of his disciples. After all look, at how generous I am: I don’t murder, I don’t commit adultery, I don’t steal, I don’t bear false witness, I don’t defraud, I honour my parents” (verse 19-20).

But it is an interesting selection from the Ten Commandments. Did you notice, in this Gospel reading, which ones are missing?

This list is the list traditionally placed on the second tablet, the six commandments about our relationships with one another, the ones that depend on loving our neighbour.

But what about the ones on the first tablet, the four that concern loving God? The ones about the Sabbath Day, the Lord’s name, idols, and recognising God and no other gods?

He gets it right about those commandments that depend on – that hang on – the second great commandment, loving our neighbour. But he gets it wrong when it comes to those commandments that depend on – that hang on – the first great commandment, loving God.

He almost gets the point, he almost hits the mark. But missing the mark is missing the mark completely, is missing the mark full stop.

The image of a camel getting through the eye of a needle is absurd and funny for us today. Some commentators have tried to explain it by claiming the ‘Eye of the Needle’ was a gate in Jerusalem that opened after the main gate closed at night. A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it had its bagged removed and stooped down on its knees.

Actually, the small gate in Jerusalem called the ‘Eye of a Needle’ is in the Russian Church in the Old City, and was built as late as the 16th century.

Yet still, this interpretation links shedding our load, getting rid of our old baggage, and meekly kneeling upon our knees, even acknowledging Christ as Lord, with entrance into the heavenly city, the kingdom of God.

This rich young man kneels before the Lord, but he cannot get rid of his old baggage so that he can work out his relationship with God. Christ is a “Good Teacher” for him (verse 17), but is just not good enough for him. No matter how he turns, where he turns, he does not realise he has come face-to-face with the living God, and he does not love him enough to follow him.

This is a story about priorities, and the young man who comes to Christ in this reading has chosen the priory of wealth, position and privilege, is not willing to pay what Dietrich Bonhoeffer later calls “the Cost of Discipleship.”

There is nothing wrong with power, privilege and position if we use them to serve our values. But we get it wrong when we put our values in second place to power, privilege and position. Christ gets to the heart of the matter, knowing immediately that the young man does not know the difference.

The young man’s claim is not proud. He shows an almost disarming keenness and even an endearing naivety (verse 20). He is shocked by “the Cost of Discipleship” and he turns away, shocked; he turns away from Christ. There is a choice to be made, and he chooses to turn away, and turning away is the very opposite to conversion (verse 22).

He finds, as it says in our epistle reading, that God’s word is like a two-edged sword, cutting through to the heart of the matter, laying bare the real intentions of our hearts (Hebrews 4: 12-13; see Revelation 1: 16). And in his choice to turn away he misses an opportunity of realising what it is to come face-to-face with the living God.

We get it wrong when we judge our successes against the images others project onto us rather than seeking to be shaped in the potential we have because we are made in the image and likeness of God.

Where do you turn to find the Living God? The opening chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, which we heard here last Wednesday (Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 5-12), says Christ “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word …”

The King of Kings and Great High Priest ... an icon from Mount Athos on the wall of my study (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Paul puts it more succinctly when he says Christ is “the image of God” (II Corinthians 4: 4; Colossians 1: 15); the Greek word he uses is εἰκών (eikón, icon).

I have a small collection of icons on the wall above my desk in my study upstairs. They represent different phases and aspects of my ministry. One is an icon from Mount Athos of Christ, the King of Kings and the Great High Priest, who I hope sets my pattern – who should set the pattern for each and every one of us – in ordained ministry.

We are told in the epistle reading: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens … let us … approach the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4: 14-16).

Christ comes into the world as the King of Kings and as the Great High Priest. But he comes not as the sort of king that we would expect a king to be, nor as a great high priest full of pomp and self-importance, not as a rich young man.

When you have been ordained as priests for a few years, when you have served your first curacy and come to move to your first or second parish as rector, you will be in danger of slipping into habits that you do not realise have been formed slowly and invisibly.

You will be the centre of attention. Nominators who want to attract you to their parish will tell you how wonderful and how talented you are; people will praise your sermons and how well you perform at Christmas and Easter, at baptisms, weddings and funerals.

You may delight in being at the centre of attention; your photographs will appear in the Church of Ireland Gazette beside bishops and in the local newspaper beside mayors and celebrities. You may be interviewed on television and write books that received critical acclaim.

And all in a very good cause, no doubt.

But once we are on a career path, we are in danger of forgetting that priesthood is not a professional option, we are in danger of forgetting the first reasons why we started to explore the idea of ordained ministry, why we first set out on the way of discipleship with Christ.

It was in humbling himself as a servant that Christ truly became the role model for all in ordained ministry.

This story of the rich man carries three warnings:

1, As Christ points out, we should be aware of the gap between aspirations and reality as we work out our vocations. In a very penetrating and discerning way, like a sharp, two-edged sword, Christ’s words show the man that he is not really as “Gospel hungry” as his initial words and actions seem to show.

2, It is a warning against the hindrance of riches, which come in a variety of tempting ways, and not just the temptation of money.

3, It is a warning that our vocations can get side-lined and can be betrayed by other priorities, not just the trappings of wealth, but also of power, promotion, priestly privilege, and even the feeling that I am so good that everyone should want me.

Model yourself on Christ, and Christ then will not be hidden from you. When you go forward, he will be there, when you go backward, you will perceive him; you will find him on your left side and on your right (see Job 23: 8-9).

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


O God,
without you we are not able to please you;
Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Holy and blessed God,
you feed us with the body and blood of your Son
and fill us with your Holy Spirit.
May we honour you,
not only with our lips but in lives dedicated
to the service of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Mark 10: 17-31

17 Καὶ ἐκπορευομένου αὐτοῦ εἰς ὁδὸν προσδραμὼν εἷς καὶ γονυπετήσας αὐτὸν ἐπηρώτα αὐτόν, Διδάσκαλε ἀγαθέ, τί ποιήσω ἵνα ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω; 18 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Τί με λέγεις ἀγαθόν; οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός. 19 τὰς ἐντολὰς οἶδας: Μὴ φονεύσῃς, Μὴ μοιχεύσῃς, Μὴ κλέψῃς, Μὴ ψευδομαρτυρήσῃς, Μὴ ἀποστερήσῃς, Τίμα τὸνπατέρα σου καὶ τὴν μητέρα. 20 ὁ δὲ ἔφη αὐτῷ, Διδάσκαλε, ταῦτα πάντα ἐφυλαξάμην ἐκ νεότητός μου. 21 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐμβλέψας αὐτῷ ἠγάπησεν αὐτὸν καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Εν σε ὑστερεῖ: ὕπαγε ὅσα ἔχεις πώλησον καὶ δὸς [τοῖς] πτωχοῖς, καὶ ἕξεις θησαυρὸν ἐν οὐρανῷ, καὶ δεῦρο ἀκολούθει μοι. 22 ὁ δὲ στυγνάσας ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ ἀπῆλθεν λυπούμενος, ἦν γὰρ ἔχων κτήματα πολλά.

23 Καὶ περιβλεψάμενος ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγει τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ, Πῶς δυσκόλως οἱ τὰ χρήματα ἔχοντες εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελεύσονται. 24 οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ ἐθαμβοῦντο ἐπὶ τοῖς λόγοις αὐτοῦ. ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν ἀποκριθεὶς λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τέκνα, πῶς δύσκολόν ἐστιν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν: 25 εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστιν κάμηλον διὰ [τῆς] τρυμαλιᾶς [τῆς] ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν. 26 οἱ δὲ περισσῶς ἐξεπλήσσοντο λέγοντες πρὸς ἑαυτούς, Καὶ τίς δύναται σωθῆναι; 27 ἐμβλέψας αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγει, Παρὰ ἀνθρώποις ἀδύνατον ἀλλ' οὐ παρὰ θεῷ, πάντα γὰρ δυνατὰ παρὰ τῷ θεῷ.

28 Ἤρξατο λέγειν ὁ Πέτρος αὐτῷ, Ἰδοὺ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν πάντα καὶ ἠκολουθήκαμέν σοι. 29 ἔφη ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐδείς ἐστιν ὃς ἀφῆκεν οἰκίαν ἢ ἀδελφοὺς ἢ ἀδελφὰς ἢ μητέρα ἢ πατέρα ἢ τέκνα ἢ ἀγροὺς ἕνεκεν ἐμοῦ καὶ ἕνεκεν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου, 30 ἐὰν μὴ λάβῃ ἑκατονταπλασίονα νῦν ἐν τῷ καιρῷ τούτῳ οἰκίας καὶ ἀδελφοὺς καὶ ἀδελφὰς καὶ μητέρας καὶ τέκνα καὶ ἀγροὺς μετὰ διωγμῶν, καὶ ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 31 πολλοὶ δὲ ἔσονται πρῶτοι ἔσχατοι καὶ [οἱ] ἔσχατοι πρῶτοι.

Mark 10: 17-31 (NRSV):

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18 Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother”.’ 20 He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27 Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29 Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist on 14 October 2015.