15 May 2015
Text from homily delivered by Pádraig Ó Tuama at Corrymeela’s 50th Anniversary celebrations at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, May 10, 2015.
Good afternoon friends. What an honour for us as the Corrymeela Community to be here with you at your service this afternoon.
I bring you the prayers and greetings of the Corrymeela community.
We are moved to share your house of prayer that has had centuries of pilgrims bring their hopes, their desperations, their desires and their disappointments here. These walls have heard the the prayers of the privileged and the prayers of the desperate. They have heard the prayers of the lonely, those in love, those bereaved, those who are in hope. And us. We join together today – people from across Ireland and across the globe.
Our texts today speak of reaching out in our common humanity.
We hear first of Naomi, a Hebrew woman who left her own territory during a famine and went to the country of the Moabites, and there had been little love written of between the Moabites and the Hebrews up until the point of this story.
We also hear the strong words of Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew’s gospel where he speaks about visiting the sick, those in prison, sharing your coat.
And we honour, in Psalm 67, the God who judges with equity.
When I was twenty, with more zeal than sense, I prayed that I would be sent as a missionary somewhere exotic. “God, send me anywhere,” I prayed, and, quick as a flash, the query was in my mind. “Will you go meet the Travellers?” and I closed my bible and left the place of prayer.
I prayed asking God to give me a message, to help me to change other people. I wasn’t interested in a God who would challenge my prejudice, point me towards those of my own country whose lives I didn’t know, and whose customs were different to mine. I didn’t expect God to deconstruct me.
In the noise of my own prayers, I was discovering a small silence.
I remember that prayer time. I was frightened. I couldn’t imagine going to work with the Travellers, an lucht siúil. Why? Because I didn’t know any. I only knew what I’d heard, and I’d never met anyone. I thought: “They wouldn’t like me” and that was an extraordinarily convenient way of projecting anxiety onto them without recognising my own complicity.
In recent years, I have grown closer to some friends in the Travelling Community. I have had my life enriched by their stories, art, poetry, dignity, culture, language and community. We share complications, all of us who live on this island. I think of Rosaleen McDonagh a Traveller who tells stories of the body, of feminism, of grief, of unexpected friendships and of transformation in a way that transforms me into wishing to be a better kind of human.
That is what our celebration is about today. We, today, celebrate our shared humanity.
The Corrymeela Centre honours the creative possibilities that happen when unexpected groupings of people come together. We honour the friendships that are created across bridges of misunderstanding, and we honour the pain that has passed between us. We celebrate the creative power of a really engaged argument, an argument that happens over shared meals and tea, an argument where we explore the prejudices we bring to the table, and where we leave the table with new friends, new information, unsettled assumptions. Corrymeela began in 1965 by Ray Davey, a former prisoner of war from WWII who later became chaplain at Queens.He had been dismayed by all experiences of war, those he suffered himself and those he saw when Dresden was firebombed.
We gathered around the radical centre of meeting with each other,of bringing unexpected individuals together.
Our practice is to put the word “Together” at the end of words of faith. Theology – together. Reconciliation – together. Argument – together. Dialogue – together. Peace – together. Confession and Repentance – together. Community – together.
The story of Naomi in our text today moves me deeply. She moved to a country that did not love her, nor she them. An accusation against the Moabites is remembered in Deuteronomy 23:5 – because the Moabites did not “come out to greet you with bread and water on your journey after you left Egypt” (Deut 23:5) – In essence, an entire people had been remembered for their failure of loving kindness. But Naomi left her country because she was hungry and she made a good life for herself with the Moabites. She had a husband and sons, and those sons had wives. All three of the men died and three women were left.
Ruth, was the wife of one of Naomi’s sons. She was a Moabite. Her story had been changed by the arrival of a refugee. Changed so much that she decided to leave her own country and return with the refugee to their own country because of a story of love. She was not part of the bloodline, but she poured her own love and blood into it.
Who was Ruth who loved her mother–in–law so much, a mother in law who seems to have given up on hope herself, she is described as a “husk of a husk” by the midrash (Zornberg, 2009, 350).
What caused her to leave her own people and cling to her mother in law?
Ruth’s lines, as she is declaring her intent to remain with her mother in law and become an exile herself, are:
Wherever you go, I shall go wherever you live, I shall live Your people will be my people and your god will be my God. Where you die, I shall die,
and there I shall be buried.
Let Adonai bring unnameable ills on me and worse ills too,
if anything but death should part me from you.
That words “let Adonai bring unnameable ills on me and worse ills too” forms an imprecatory oath – a solemn covenant. Words create reality. so by calling down ills upon herself, it was actually considered to be taking a sacred oath of destruction should she ever break her word.
She had been changed by the sense of belonging.
She had discovered, in belonging, a life that had transformed her. She had been changed by those who had moved to her country.
In Irish we say “cead míle fáilte” one hundred thousand welcomes. There is a radical transformation at the heart of every fáilte. Because to extend welcome is to extend the heart, to be changed.
The gospel texts for today are strong texts. We hear of sheep and goats being separated but the thing about this separation is not that they are separated along doctrinal lines, or along national identity lines, along race lines, along lines of sexual orientation, political affiliation, or whether they follow liberal or conservative viewpoints on society. The words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew focus us on action. The poor, The sick, Those in prison. We are asked – have you moved towards
those who might frighten you? Those whose story you do not know? Have you explored the dark corners of your own prejudice?
At Corrymeela, we are moved to have been witness to thousands of people a year who come to learn and live well together. Recently, somebody had met people of faith and said “I can no longer stereotype evangelicals any more”. Another person said “I never realised that Catholics loved their faith as much.” Another said “I never realised you people loved each other” and somebody else said “I don’t care as much about how the neighbours see me now”. Somebody else said “I’ll look after your kids so you can have a walk” . Somebody asked “How many times have my words about you bruised you?” and somebody else said “how can I speak with and about you with respect?”
The word Corrymeela means “lumpy crossing place” – and we honour this earthy meaning. We don’t get it right.In fact, we’ve learnt the most from when we have hurt others and each other. The point is whether we can travel to each other, in open–heartedness, and hear how the story of hurt has influenced the other.
There is unexpected community to be discovered between unexpected people in unexpected places. Naomi Shibab Nye writes in her beautiful prose poem “Gate A–4” about being in an airport where a flight has been delayed. A woman who speaks no English is upset because she’s thought the flight was cancelled, not merely delayed. The poet speaks some Arabic so she gets the message across, and soon, people are sharing sugared biscuits, holding hands, giving each other a loan of a mobile phone to make calls, the airline give free juice and people who share no language are sharing hospitality. The poet says:
And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands––had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate––once the crying of confusion stopped––seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.1
The psalm for today honours God who judges the peoples with “mishor” – mishor is a Hebrew word that comes from geography. It literally describes a plateau. A place where you can see all about you. A spacious place, a place where nothing is hidden – not our power games, our privileges, not our prejudices, not our manipulations, not our flimsy understanding of the borders of our identity, not our hatreds.
We are, with God, on a plateau of story, and our stories are laid out. May we move towards each other in this plateau, and, in moving, be like Ruth and Naomi, be like the people in an airport, be like the best parts of all of us, transformed by moving towards each other with love, curiosity and belonging.