Monday, October 22, 2012

All Sorts of Messy

I got an e-mail from a friend back in the states yesterday morning pointing out that my soccer club, Arsenal, lost to Norwich 1-0.  After hemorrhaging players the past few seasons and dealing with one crisis after another, this season looked to be the one where we would put it all together and make a serious run at the English Premier League title.  But you don't lose to one of the worst teams in the league and expect to be a credible challenger.  Maybe we'll come back and make a big push later on.  There's still time, it's a long season and I'll support the Gunners to the bitter end, but I'm not holding my breath. I don't think that this will be the year for us to lift any meaningful silverware.  Being an Arsenal supporter can be messy.

Those who know me well know that I bleed burnt orange.  Seriously, when I get a cut or a nosebleed, the liquid which pours forth from my flesh is literally orange with a hint of dark brown.  I can't remember a time when I didn't follow the Texas Longhorns and for most of my 30 plus years of college football watching, the Horns haven't lived up to the lofty expectations set for them back in the golden days of Royal, Street, and Campbell.  I'm not a fair-weather fan.  I've supported the University right through the Akers, McWilliams, Mackovic, and now Brown years.  There have been some highs and lows, and though I've uttered some unkind words for both players and coaches, I've never quit supporting them.  I didn't stay up to watch them at 1 AM Dublin time this past weekend, but I caught the game on ESPN player on Sunday morning.  It was good to get a win after last week's embarrassment, but 5-2, #23 in the BCS and being irrelevant on the national stage for the third year in a row isn't good enough for the University of Texas at Austin.  It's unacceptable, but it's reality.  Being a Longhorn fan can be messy.

Sports and other hobbies or diversions are not even close to being the most important things in life, but I do believe that they can teach us a lot about life.  Supporting and playing on sports teams has its ups and downs, highs and lows, as does life.  Rarely do sports seasons unfold quite like we hope them to.  Rarely does life unfold like we expect.  Life is messy, isn't it?  At times it gets really, really messy.  Even when we aren't going through a crisis, even when the Sun is shining, even when things are going relatively well, life is messy.  Since I'm a neat freak, this kind of annoys me, but I'm learning to live with the messiness in my own life and the lives of those around me.

One of the things that rings true to me about the Biblical story is that it too is messy.  No sooner is God's good creation complete, then things turn nasty in a hurry.  From Genesis 3-11 the proverbial excrement hits the fan and stuff gets blown about the room in alarming fashion.  But then we turn the page and God begins to bring order out of chaos.  He calls a man and then a people and things begin to progress and make sense once more.  Well, kind of.  Throughout the story of Israel, there's all sorts of messiness.  Messy lives, messy people, messy situations - it's just all sorts of messy!  And then out of the messiness of history a child, a Messiah, a Son of Man, the Son of God is born.  God the Son actually enters into the messiness of our lives and the messiness of his own life.  In Jesus' own story, the history of the Universe takes a turn that none could have predicted, but a turn that actually begins to make sense of all this messiness we find ourselves in.

Because of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God we can begin to make sense of our chaotic lives.  But that doesn't automatically make them less messy.  The tornadoes and hurricanes of our world still blow stuff about the rooms of our lives and as soon as we get one mess cleaned up, a new one whooshes in.  That's life.  But the good news of the gospel tells us that the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the inconsistencies of this existence are being ironed out and a that a beautiful mosaic or tapestry is being created from the chaos.  Okay, so a bit of a mixed metaphor, but just like life, its messy. - Shay 

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Fields are Ripe

A few months ago I met Jim Carroll, the Rector of the Raheny Parish of the Church of Ireland in a local coffee shop.  He showed me around the All Saints building and invited me to speak at their Harvest Thanksgiving worship.  He later informed me that he had double booked the occasion, but a few weeks ago he rang me again and asked if I would be willing to speak.  Of course I agreed to and so I had the opportunity to share a message from John 4 yesterday morning at the All Saints Church in Raheny and the St. John the Evangelist Church in Coolock.  Here's the homily I delivered.       

Good morning.  First of all I would like to say thank you to Jim Carroll for allowing me to share with you a message from God’s word this Harvest Sunday.  Our God is good and he allows the sun to shine and the rain to rain, especially here in Ireland, on both the righteous and the unrighteous.  All good things come from God and we have much to be thankful for in Ireland 2012.  And as thankful as we are for all of God’s abundant blessings, when we consider the gift of Jesus Christ, all of God’s other blessings pale in comparison.  We will always give thanks to God for the harvest of crops each and every year, but join me this morning in reflecting on a spiritual harvest that Jesus and his disciples reap in John chapter 4.  

Let me set the context for our text this morning.  Jesus is traveling with his disciples from Judea back to Galilee.  Normally when Jews would travel from Judea to Galilee or vice versa, they would go around Samaria to the other side of the Jordan River.  They did this because there were a lot of bandits in Samaria and it could be quite risky to travel through the territory.  But there was an even bigger reason.  The Jews hated the Samaritans and the Samaritans felt the same way about the Jews.  There were cultural differences, ethnic differences, and more importantly, religious differences that had not only separated these Semitic peoples, but had actually led to outright conflict from time to time.  And yet we’re told in John 4 that Jesus has to go through Samaria.  He is called to make this journey and as the story progresses it becomes obvious why Jesus must visit the Samaritan town of Sychar. 
 Tired and hungry from the long journey, the disciples skip off to town to find some grub while Jesus waits around by Jacob’s well outside the city limits.  There in the heat of the day, a woman approaches and Jesus asks her for a drink.  This gives the woman quite a shock because most devout Jewish men would never be alone with a woman, let alone strike up a conversation with one.  How much more shocking is it that Jesus, a Jew, is breaking not only social convention, but religious and ethnic barriers by engaging this Samaritan woman in conversation and asking her to share a drink with him. 
 The situation gets even more interesting as Jesus returns the favour of a drink and offers the woman living water, in other words, running water, not of a physical nature, but of a spiritual one.  In essence, Jesus offers the woman a life so filled up and overflowing with the Holy Spirit that it will eventually stream into eternal life in the age to come.  The woman is interested in the offer, but Jesus must still deal with the reality of the woman’s past and present before she can begin to look forward to her future.
 Jesus asks her to call her husband.  She admits that she’s not married and Jesus goes a step further by reminding her that not only is she not married, but she’s in fact been married 5 times and the fella she’s shacking up with now is not her husband.  Jesus has put this lady on the spot, but rather than facing up to the messiness of her own situation, she tries a diversion tactic and brings up a theological issue that had fanned the flames of conflict between the Jews and Samaritans for years.                

 Jesus calmly answers her query and uses her diversion to bring her back to the matter at hand - her need for salvation, her need for spiritual transformation.  This woman is up against it.  She’s an immoral woman in a world that discriminates against both her gender and her lifestyle choices.  And she’s a product of her culture – a culture that is divided ethnically and religiously, a culture that honours God with its lips, but whose hearts are far from him.  Neither she nor those in her community are the ideal people that most would target for a religious harvest, but this is exactly what Jesus does.
We live in a world that is not too dissimilar to the world of this Samaritan woman.  21st Century Ireland contains many interesting parallels to the world of 1st Century Palestine.  Like the Middle East 2,000 years ago, modern Ireland has become a culturally and ethnically diverse place.  If there were cultural differences between the peoples of this island several hundred years ago, with the immigration of the past decade, how much more? 
And of course, if Ireland is known for anything, it’s known for religious division and conflict.  As a young boy growing up in America, my oldest memory of Ireland was seeing footage of riots and protests between Catholics and Protestants in the North on television.  Thank God this situation seems to have taken a turn for the better in recent years, but it’s safe to say that there is still much work to be done.
 And like this Samaritan woman’s question regarding the appropriate place for worship, there is a lot of religious confusion amongst people in today’s Western world.  A growing militant secularism threatens religious faith in general, while the pervasiveness of pluralism threatens the Christian faith in particular.  These modern philosophies are politically correct and sound good on the surface, but both fail to offer the living water that Jesus promised the woman at the well. 
 Increasingly, our world refuses to honour God with even its lips, let alone with its heart and its actions.  Though the West, Europe and America has a history of cultural Christianity, true discipleship on a wide scale, the kind that burrows deep within hearts and transforms lives from the inside out seems to be lacking.   Ireland, Dublin, Raheny, Coolock – this probably wouldn’t be the ideal place that most would target for a religious revival, for a spiritual harvest.  But I believe that this is exactly what Jesus wants to do, and in fact, is already doing.  But before we go there, let’s travel back once more to our narrative in John 4.  Please read with me verses 27-42.
 We can see clearly why Jesus has to go through Samaria.  There is a harvest waiting to be reaped.  This harvest comes in an unexpected place, through an unexpected person.  And normally there are many months in the making of a harvest, but not here.  The disciples don’t sow the seeds, nor do they do the watering – they simply join God where he has already been at work.  They are standing the on the shoulders of giants –  these giants are the prophets of old, more recently John the Baptist, and even this woman of ill repute who has  shared the good news of Jesus with her friends, family, and neighbours. 
  In a world of ethnic and cultural divisions, in a world of religious confusion and religious conflict, Jesus offers this woman and the people of Sychar something that they could find in no one else – living water, eternal life.  The gospel is for Jews, the gospel is for Samaritans, the gospel is for everyone because Jesus truly is the Saviour of the world! 
And Jesus is just as much the Saviour of the world today as he was 2,000 years ago!  The gospel is for Jews & Samaritans just as it is for slave & free, male & female, Irish & immigrant, Catholic & Protestant – the gospel is for everyone!  And though this island of saints and scholars might have lapsed into an island of sinners and the cynical, I believe that the fields are ripe for harvesting.  So often God’s harvest comes in unexpected places through unexpected people at unexpected times.  When Europe had fallen back into paganism during the dark ages, Ireland sent missionaries to re-evangelize much of the continent.  Why not again and why not now?  Ireland is ripe for harvesting if we look through the eyes of Jesus.
 In a culture of religious conflict and religious confusion, there is a hunger and thirst for spirituality – a hunger for genuine, life changing discipleship – a thirst for living water that will bubble up to eternal life.  People – our friends, family, and neighbours are hungry and thirsty and like the woman of Sychar we have the opportunity to introduce them to our friend Jesus.  And you know, God doesn’t ask us to do all of the work – it’s his harvest.  We simply join him where he’s already at work.  Like the disciples, we are standing the shoulders of giants.  We stand on the shoulders of the faithful men and women who have come before us and even more importantly, we stand on the shoulders of Jesus himself.  He’s the way, the truth, the life – he’s the Saviour of the world!  As the apostle Paul reminds us, we may plant or water, but it’s God who brings the growth.
 So as we reflect on what God has given us on this harvest Sunday, as we remember the way in which Almighty God provides us with all that we have and all that we need, as we offer him our praise and as we give him all the glory and all the thanks for every good gift that he’s given each one of us, may we not forget that an even greater harvest awaits us in the age to come – a messianic banquet with the faithful of all ages – an eternal banquet with Jesus our Lord.  And may we remember that the harvest has already begun.  The fields are ripe and God is calling us all to play our part in his harvest.  To God be the glory!  Great things he has done, great things he is doing, and great things he will continue to do.  And may all God’s people say, amen. - Shay