14 August 2016

‘This is the death of earth ...
This is the death of water and fire’

A small vineyard near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford,

Saint Bartholomew’s Church,

Ballsbridge, Dublin,

Sunday 14 August 2016,

The 12th Sunday after Trinity.

9 a.m.: The Said Eucharist

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80: 1-2, 9-20; Hebrews 11: 29 to 12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56.

In the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

There are very frightening, apocalyptic themes in this morning’s lectionary readings.

In the Old Testament reading, the Prophet Isaiah, in words that echo the Psalm, speaks of vineyards that yield only wild grapes (Isaiah 5: 2, 4); breaking and trampling down walls (verse 4); vines giving way to briers and thorns (verse 6); bloodshed instead of justice, a cry instead of righteousness (verse 7).

The New Testament reading speaks of mocking and flogging (Hebrews 11: 36), chains and imprisonment (verse 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).

You can imagine some of the hellfire-and-brimstone sermons that may be heard in some churches this morning. But we need to rescue these images from the fantasists and the fundamentalists. Indeed, these are images that have also inspired the great creative minds in our culture, 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 extremists, 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.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ challenges the complacency of people who see the warnings in the weather, which they cannot change, but are unwilling to look for the signs of the coming Kingdom of God, and the ways in which we can challenge the complacency of the world.

The Baptismal Font in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Fire and water were a challenge for me in Longford last Sunday afternoon when I visited Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Longford.

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

The first sight to confront and challenge the visitor is the overwhelming and beautiful baptismal font at the main entrance door to the cathedral.

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

In this morning’s reading, Christ offers us an opportunity to be challenged by the meaning of our own Baptism.

I was in a church one recent Sunday where there was a rambling sermon and 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 and economic injustice.

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 been made irrelevant.

The challenge of our Baptism is a challenge for the Church to be a sign of, a sacrament of, the Kingdom of God in a world that is divided and suffering.

Without that challenge and response, our faith is danger of death.

Our Baptism demands a discipleship that seeks to challenge and confront a suffering and divided world with the values and promises of the Kingdom 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.


Almighty and everlasting God,
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray
and to give more than either we desire, or deserve:
Pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,
and giving us those good things
which we are not worthy to ask
save through the merits and mediation
of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of compassion,
in this Eucharist we know again your forgiveness
and the healing power of your love.
Grant that we who are made whole in Christ
may bring that forgiveness and healing to this broken world,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 12: 49-56

49 [Ο Ιησούς είπε,] Πῦρ ἦλθον βαλεῖν ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν, καὶ τί θέλω εἰ ἤδη ἀνήφθη. 50 βάπτισμα δὲ ἔχω βαπτισθῆναι, καὶ πῶς συνέχομαι ἕως ὅτου τελεσθῇ. 51 δοκεῖτε ὅτι εἰρήνην παρεγενόμην δοῦναι ἐν τῇ γῇ; οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἢ διαμερισμόν. 52 ἔσονται γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν πέντε ἐν ἑνὶ οἴκῳ διαμεμερισμένοι, τρεῖς ἐπὶ δυσὶν καὶ δύο ἐπὶ τρισίν, 53 διαμερισθήσονται

πατὴρ ἐπὶ υἱῷ
καὶ υἱὸς ἐπὶ πατρί,
μήτηρ ἐπὶ τὴν θυγατέρα
καὶ θυγάτηρ ἐπὶ τὴν μητέρα,
πενθερὰ ἐπὶ τὴν νύμφην αὐτῆς
καὶ νύμφη ἐπὶ τὴν πενθεράν.

54 Ἔλεγεν δὲ καὶ τοῖς ὄχλοις, Οταν ἴδητε [τὴν] νεφέλην ἀνατέλλουσαν ἐπὶ δυσμῶν, εὐθέως λέγετε ὅτι Ὄμβρος ἔρχεται, καὶ γίνεται οὕτως: 55 καὶ ὅταν νότον πνέοντα, λέγετε ὅτι Καύσων ἔσται, καὶ γίνεται. 56 ὑποκριταί, τὸ πρόσωπον τῆς γῆς καὶ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ οἴδατε δοκιμάζειν, τὸν καιρὸν δὲ τοῦτον πῶς οὐκ οἴδατε δοκιμάζειν;

49 [Jesus said,] ‘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?’

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Said Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 14 August 2016.

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