19 Jan 2016
Service of Christian Unity, St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland and Church of the Assumption Parishes, Dalkey, Co. Dublin.
January 18, 2016.
Texts: Is 55:1–3, 1 Peter 2:9–10, Matt 5:1–16.
Good evening friends. It is a great honour to be with you here in Dalkey for this evening’s celebration of Christian Unity. I bring the prayers and best wishes of the Corrymeela Community for you on this marking of the day of unity.
Of course, the week of Christian Unity does not end at the end of this week. It is a constant endeavour. The week of Christian Unity could also properly be called “Loving one’s neighbour” — doing so across borders, denominational barriers, identity barriers, and any difficult difference that we let split us. Our deepest faith is expressed in the love we show each other — known neighbours and unknown neighbours.
In order to reflect on our texts for this beautiful service, I would like to use two stories.
Firstly, in the perfection, the jouissance of Eden, we hear that the Adam and the Eve, the man and the woman, naked though they were, were unashamed. The Hebrew word for unashamed (שׁוּבּ) has the linguistic feature of also connoting “delayed”. There is a sense that the opposite of shame is presence
— to be, perhaps, fully present to the place and circumstances of life, to be alive and attentive to life in its fulness in the moment. So much of our pain comes from being delayed, from being late — we are late to courage so we lie while we are delayed. We are late to vulnerability so we use aggression to cover the exposed moment. We are late to the truth of both our potential and limitation, and so we use exaggeration and abusive power to cover the story of our capacity and incapacity.
The opposite of shame is presence. That’s one lens we can use for our texts tonight.
The other story I want to use comes from the daughter of a friend of mine. The daughter’s name is Sarah Bethlehem. She’s a teenager now, sophisticated and intelligent. When she was 3, she was just the same. Her family came for a visit and stayed a week. Sarah Bethlehem was in the phase of asking the same question over and over. “You doing?” she would ask when I was making a cup of tea. “I’m making a cup of tea Sarah,” I’d say. “You doing?” She’d ask when I was opening a book. “I”m opening a book Sarah” I’d say. ‘You doing?” “You doing?” “You doing” she’d ask over and over. And I’d tell her I was reading, or closing the book, or making a phone call or anything at all.
Sarah Bethlehem was a small, cute, curious and questioning virus that latched on to me for their visit.
One day I was doing the washing up. I was washing cups. “You doing?” she asked.
“I washing” I answered, charmed into the power of her grammar.
Then I thought I’d ask her. “You doing?” I asked. She looked at me. Nonplussed. “I asking” she said.
Sarah Bethlehem was perfectly present to the moment. She hadn’t yet learnt that awful delay between your question and the judgment of your question. The world was present to her to ask and enquire of.
Our texts today speak of the present moment.
In Isaiah, the writer is speaking to those who are thirsty,to those who are hungry, to those who are looking for satisfaction from a new economy of dignity,speaking to those who are desperate to listen to something that demonstrates that their lives are taken seriously, the writer is speaking to those who are hungry to belong, those who seek not to be ashamed of themselves and who seek to belong to a people that are not ashamed of them.
Peter is writing in the epistle to a people who are belonging to a ragtag crew of interfaith experimentation — Jews and Gentiles and those who keep food laws and those who don’t, the circumcised and uncircumcised, people of different genders, people of different purities.
“You are a chosen people” he writes to the unchosen. He speaks to the abandoned saying that they belong. You are God’s people, he announces, speaking a new citizenship, and deeper than citizenship, a new anthropology, a new way of being human together.
And Jesus, too, is speaking to those who know their need of God, speaking to the mourning, speaking to the meek, and those who are agitated for the claws of injustice to be relaxed, he is speaking to those who are pure and who seek to make peace in a world that is not always peaceful. He is speaking to those who are persecuted, those against whom words are used for the decimation of reputation and dignity.
Now. Right now. You are blessed.
Perhaps not because of anything. Just because. He is speaking words of true presence, speaking to those who may be ashamed words of dignity for now. Speaking to those who long for a day of relief that there is something to be grasped today. He speaks in a way that says “The household of God is already here, here amidst the imperfections of your life, here in the perpetrations of humans upon each other, here in the ways that we stumble against each other, here in the hollowness of your isolation, here in the true and troubled heart of all things. The household, the kingdom, the economy of God is now.”
He made present that which was hoped for in the future, not in a way that denied the limitations of the day, but in a way that honoured the human capacity for hope.
Even the introduction to the beatitudes text in Matthew prepares us for
something. There are crowds gathering— big crowds it seems. And Jesus is being looked to as some kind of new Moses, or new Deliverer, or new Priest, or new Prince – or perhaps all of those. And,in the lead in to, like Moses, announcing words from the side of a mountain, Matthew has Jesus:
Seeing the crowds going up the mountain sitting down
and after he sits down
his disciples come to him he opens his mouth
and begins to speak
It is a deliberate slowing of tempo on behalf of the narrator. What is about to be said to the poor, the needy, the persecuted, the hungry, the dispossessed, those who have had shame heaped upon them, those who are disinherited from their land, their people, their faith and their very dignity — what is is about to say is important, so Matthew tells it softly, and tells it over and over and over:
You are blessed.
You are blessed now.
You are already beloved, already blessed. You are a people.
The Corrymeela Community, the community that I am honoured to be a part of, began while war was brewed. Our founder,Ray Davey, was a Padré in World War II and was incarcerated in a number of POW camps, latterly Dresden. There he saw the ways in which humanity practices inhumanity, and he was profoundly changed,and the relationship between enemy and self was profoundly and chronically problematised for him.
When he returned to Belfast his analysis continued,as he saw the deepening fractures in his own society. He practiced friendship while seeds of war were being nurtured, and in 1965, he, together with friends from the chaplaincy, purchased a piece of land with an old house on it on a townland named Corrymeela a mile from the North Antrim village of Ballycastle.
Here, for 50 years, we have practiced the simplicity of the present moment. We are a place of hospitality and meeting. We welcome people to come
together to meet each other, especially where the differences between groups
are difficult differences. Catholics and Protestant. Nationalist and Unionist. Conservative and Liberal. People from across opinions and viewpoints — about gender, about sexual orientation, about sacred and secular matters, about politics. People who have always lived in a particular place, and people who have recently arrived, whether as conquerers, economic migrants, explorers or refugees. We are so varied as people, so similar and so unalike, even in a household, even in a village — and some differences are held with joy, and others with devastation.
So at Corrymeela, in a place of welcome and hospitality, we gather and we also hear each other’s stories. It’s hard — to hear stories is to allow someone to be their own narrator and so much human discord is build upon denying someone their own narration. But to narrate your own story in the presence of someone whose story has been affected by yours also offers the possibility of changing your narrative.
We explore ways in which we have impacted upon each other; how our words, and power and gestures and policies have denied— sometimes systematically — the agency and capacity of another.
We take the bold step of confessing how we have hurt each other, and taking risks of trust towards each other.
And we believe that this practice— of meeting, of listening, of exploring power, of confessing, of risking trust is part of what it means to be blessed in this life, to be blessed today, perhaps a day of division, or strife, or discord, or enmity.
Today is not perfect. But in the household of God, the richness of believing that Jesus came to announce the domestic life of God present in the parish of today, we can live in the hope that blessing, that presence, that life is present now. May we be blessed with this capacity to be present to our lives — in the ordinariness, the complication, the beauty and the pain of our everyday lives.
This practice of unity, this defiant domesticity in the face of hostility that divides us, is helped by our hospitality towards ourselves, in the place of prayer, it is helped by our being present to our world and all the others. I would like to end with a poem by Mary Oliver, who, in the face of meeting something utterly other,reflects on the effort of swimming inward with the hope that this practice and effort and commitment to swim inwards, perhaps against a tide, can be the first step towards leading us to flow outwards, in hospitality, in faith, in prayer, in hope and in love.
Five A.M. in the Pinewoods
their hoofprints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night
under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I
got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under
the blue trees, shyly
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even
nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.
This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
one of them—I swear it!—
would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the
pine needles like
the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,
I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.
(Mary Oliver, The Truro Bear and other poems. Boston, Beacon Press, 2008)