Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sermon Audio: Matthew 25:31-46

On Sunday morning I was preaching from the end of Matthew 25, what is commonly known as the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus tells us what it will be like at the end, when he returns as King and Judge. Our attitude towards the family of Jesus displays our attitude towards Jesus himself.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: Shooting Sean

Regular readers of the blog will have discovered by now that I'm slowly working my way through Colin Bateman's back catalogue, having been introduced to his writing by a friend and former colleague. Shooting Sean is the fourth Dan Starkey book, following on from Divorcing Jack, Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men, and Turbulent Priests.

In the latest novel, we pick up where we left off. Starkey, a journalist and author gets caught up in the excitement and danger surrounding the shooting of a new film in Dublin. It's an expose of a gangland criminal and terrorist in Belfast, who isn't very happy. Starkey's job is to research and write a book based on the director and star of the film, a local Irish actor who has made it big in Hollywood.

Spoiler: Starkey's wife and her son are kidnapped by the terrorist - to be released on the condition that Starkey shoots (the double meaning becomes clear) Sean O'Toole. The stakes are high, the puns come thick and fast, the action shifts from Dublin to Amsterdam to Cannes. Another clever book from Bateman. There's lots of tension as Starkey debates whether he should attempt to kill O'Toole - especially since his wife and adopted son are held hostage.

There are some brilliant lines along the way. 'The Belfast-Dublin Express has this much in common with the Orient Express: it's a train.' The travel advice continues: 'Amsterdam: canals, tulips, drugs and red lights. There you go. Just saved you five hundred pounds.' There's an interesting take on a collective noun for nuns - a convention! And also some thoughts about journalism and the internet: 'Perhaps journalism was dying in cyberspace.'

Spoiler: The tension is real, with the hostage situation. This is the book that seems to mark a change in Bateman. Previously, everything seemed to turn out for the best (apart from those peripheral characters and their high death rate). But this one changes. Little Stevie doesn't make it. It's all very real, and very unexpected. I was in shock when I read the last couple of chapters.

If you're planning to read it, make sure you've read the others in the series first. Be prepared for the stinger as Starkey shoots Sean, but the shock lies elsewhere. Shooting Sean is available from Amazonand for the Kindle.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sermon: Matthew 25: 31-46 The Sheep and the Goats

This morning I want to ask you a question: What do you think of Jesus? You might be here today for one of a number of reasons - it’s something you always do; you’re here under duress; you heard there was a Baptism and you wanted to see if Harvey would sleep or cry through the service. Now that you’re here, what do you think of Jesus?Is he someone you’re vaguely interested in - he says some nice things? Is he someone you’re trying to ignore - you think he says some strange things? What is your attitude towards him?

Over the past few Sundays we’ve been listening in as Jesus tells us about his return. He’s used several parables - stories that give us a hint about how things really are. There was the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids - are you ready for Jesus returning to this earth? Then there was the parable of the talents, about the slaves entrusted with the master’s money - are you watching and working for the Master? Those stories lead straight into this one - except, it’s a little bit different.
You see, we know how fairy stories start: ‘once upon a time.’ And the parables start in a way you know they’re parables - ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this’ (1); ‘For it is as if a man’ (14). But our reading doesn’t start that way. Instead, Jesus says: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory...’ (31)

This isn’t a story, just a tale to help us understand something real. This is more like you saying ‘when it stops raining, I’ll cut the grass’ or ‘when the bank holiday is over I’ll be back at work...’ Jesus is telling us how things are going to be - on this day when he returns. This day when the Son of Man (a title for Jesus) comes in his glory. It’s an impressive scene. He will come in his glory, joined by the angels, and he will sit on the throne of his glory. On that day there will be no denying him, everyone will recognise Jesus for who he is - the King of the universe.

Jesus looks forward to this day when he is seated on the throne of his glory, but it won’t be with Eastenders in front of him, as if he’s sitting relaxing with his feet up. Rather, ‘all the nations will be gathered before him.’ (32). What’s the biggest crowd you’ve ever been part of? Mine is the 70,000 at Croke Park to watch Ireland v Brazil in 2008. But this will be a capacity crowd. Every person who has ever lived, all nations, gathered before the throne. The Son of Man, Jesus, the King, will judge - separating people one from another just like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. In that moment, it’ll not matter what country you’re from; what your hair colour is (or whether you have any); whether you’re right-handed or left-handed; tall or small; fat or thin; nor how much money you have in your purse or wallet.

There are just two groups; two categories; and he speaks to each of them in turn. First, those on the right. ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...’ (34). Then he speaks to those on the left: ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels...’ (41). Two different destinies - very different, one of blessing, and kingdom; the other of eternal fire. It’s not hard to decide which you would prefer. The question, though, is how do some find themselves on his right and others on his left? Or rather, how can we be sure of being on his right?

Jesus gives the reason in verse 35 - to those on his right: ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink...’ In the same way, he tells those on his left: ‘for I was hungry and you gave me no food...’

If you were listening closely, you’ll have noticed that both sets of people were very surprised. They both ask: ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry...?’ (37) and ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry... and did not take care of you?’ (44)

The righteous are saying - Lord, we see you on the throne, in all your glory, we’re pretty sure we would have noticed if we had given you something to eat or drink or clothes or visited you... When did we see you hungry? The wicked are even more confused - Lord, we see your glory, we see how important you are. If we had seen you hungry we’re pretty sure we would have helped you out. But we never did see you like that, so how come we’re in this position? That’s the thing, isn’t it? If our position on that day depends on how we have treated Jesus; how we have given things to Jesus in need, how can we do that if we’ve never seen him? Have we an excuse? Can we get out of doing it?

But look at verse 40. Here’s where Jesus explains it. ‘And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”’ (40) Or as another Bible version puts it, ‘as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’ (ESV)

It’s almost time to go back to school. If you had a little brother or sister at the same school, did you ever act like a minder for them? If they were being picked on, did you ever try to sort it out? Warn off the people annoying your wee bro? What would you have said? If you mess with him, then you mess with me? (Sounds a bit like the Mafia or the Godfather...) That’s like what Jesus is saying here! The way in which you treat the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters here and now is an indication of what you think of Jesus. To help or ignore a brother or sister of Jesus is to help or ignore Jesus himself.

Great, so who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus? Is it the whole of humanity, anyone in general? Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus asks (and answers) this very question. You see, Mary the mother of Jesus and his earthly brothers and sisters have been hearing about the crowds flocking to hear him. They think he has gone mad, and they come to take him home. Here’s what Jesus says: ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? And pointing at his disciples, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (12:48-50). Jesus says the same after the resurrection, this time to Mary Magdalene: ‘go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee’ (28:10) He’s speaking about his disciples again. Or think of the time the risen Jesus confronts Saul, the persecutor of Christians. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ (Acts 9:5).

Today as we baptise Harvey, we welcome him into the family, and pray that he will grow up to love and trust Jesus, to become a disciple of Jesus, a brother of Jesus.

What we do here and now matters. How we treat the family of Jesus shows what we think of Jesus. As John says: ‘Those who say, “I love God”, and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20). And again, ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?’

Our entry into eternal life or eternal punishment is down to God’s grace. But the test of our words of love for Jesus is in our actions - whether we love the family of Jesus, the least of his brothers and sisters in need.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 25th August 2013.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sermon Audio: Matthew 25: 13-30

On Sunday morning we continued to listen in as Jesus tells those parables of his return in Matthew 25. This week, it's the parable of the talents - having been entrusted with his work, how will we greet the Master's return?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Church of Ireland in the Plantation of Ulster

On Monday I reviewed Jonathan Bardon's book The Plantation of Ulster. The parts of the book that resonated most deeply with me were the repeated concentrations on the role of religion in the colonisation process. So I want to take some time to think about the evidence Bardon presents, and question how we can commit to gospel-centredness over against our traditional role of state enforcer of religion.

The role of the Church of Ireland at that time seemed to be a political one, with it being seen as a tool for the civilising of the crude Irish. The importance of the gospel was lost amidst the political baggage, unfortunately.

Davies and Chichester were also at one in their certainty that the process of anglicisation must include the full introduction of the Protestant religion, ensuring that the established church - the Church of Ireland - was the sole ecclesiastical authority throughout Ireland. (56)

This issues in the proclamation of King James in 1605 aimed at converting the Old English settlers in Ireland from their Catholicism:

Chichester launched a programme of religious persecution on a scale never witnessed before in Ireland. He now rigidly enforced an earlier law which fined ordinary Catholics a shilling for every Sunday they failed to attend a Protestant church... In Drogheda, Chichester personally led the campaign to force Catholics to attend Protestant services. One Catholic gentleman went as far as the church door but would go no further, whereupon Chichester told him, blandly at first, and then savagely, to go in, and... struck him a cruel blow on the head with his stick. Then the macebearer attacked him so savagely that he fell to the ground like a dead man, and the viceroy had him dragged into church, where he lay insensible and gasping all the time of the sermon, and no one dared approach him. (69)

The man died shortly after. It's hardly a seeker sensitive approach, nor even a gospel minded invitation for people to come in. Once the plantation began in earnest, there was some urging of ministers to come to the pagan land:

Art thou a Minister of Gods word? make speede, the harvest is great, but the laborers be fewe: that shalt there see the poore ignorant untaught people worship stones and sticks: thou by carrying millions to heaven, maiest be made an archangell. (144 - from a pamphlet written by Thomas Blennerhasset, an undertaker planting in Lurg and Coolmakernan in County Fermanagh)

Others became Church of Ireland because it was politically convenient to do so:

The turbulent marchlands of England and Scotland [from whence came the Border Rievers] had not been known for their piety. Here families had hardly been touched by the Reformation. Arriving in Ulster in search of land to rent, they quickly found it politic and economically advantageous to be Protestants. Barely aware of Presbyterian or Puritan theology, they conformed to the state-sponsored church. This explains why such a large number of Protestants in Co. Fermanagh became, and remained, members of the Church of Ireland. (148)

While it appears that King James was a gospel man, his advisors were not thus inclined:

In 1604 the English Privy Council informed Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Dublin, that King James believed 'true religion is better planted by the word than the sword', but Loftus and Thomas Jones, the Lord Chancellor (who was to succeed Loftus in that post), responded that they were unable to see 'how, without some moderate course of coactions, they can be reclaimed from their idolatry to come to hear the glad tidings of the truth.' In short, 'coaction' (force) might be required to bring about the conversion of natives to the reformed faith.(198)

No wonder the gospel has singularly failed to take root in this island! The situation was scarcely likely to improve - the newly appointed Bishop of Derry, Raphoe and Clogher was more concerned with his lands and incomes than with the preaching of the gospel. Similarly, Trinity College Dublin, founded to provide reformed clergy, was sending out on average no more than five graduates per year. The Archdeacon of Clogher in 1622 admitted that 'many of his clergy were "scarce endowed with a mediocrity of learning."' (202)

Tensions between settlers and natives militated against any prospect of mass conversions to the reformed religion among the Gaelic Irish. In any case an alien religion whcih vilified their cherished beliefs and traditions would be preached by men speaking an alien tongue, who often regarded them as pagans, savages and barbarians. Further alienation was brought about by the manner in which the established church imposed its exactions on the native population. Resistance to conversion was strengthened by the eagerness of bishops and clergy of the state church to punish and exploit them through the ecclesiastical courts. (203)

There was another element of sadness in the political machinations, and that centred on the driving out of the Presbyterian clergy. For the first thirty years or so, Presbyterian clergy were welcomed within the Church of Ireland, ministering and preaching the gospel. (Crawford Gribben has written more extensively on this feature of the Church of Ireland at the time). As Bardon writes,

Scottish Presbyterian ministers were readily accepted as parish clergy in Ulster without being forced to subscribe to prescribed liturgy and articles of faith. This explains why there was no serious attempt to set up a presbytery in Ulster until 1642. (203)

But come that fateful time, everything would change.

Wentworth, after denying Catholics the right to public office, now turned on Presbyterians who did not toe the line. Until now the Church of Ireland had tolerated a wide range of Protestant beliefs and practices. This suited Scots very well: most of those settling in Ulster were Presbyterians, who, since they did not yet have their own church here, were content to join the Church of Ireland. And all over Ireland, Protestants in this, the established church, tended to be Puritans, favouring plain forms of worship and dress.
Wentworth was determined to change all that. Bishops using the High Church pomp, ceremony, chanting and liturgy favoured by the King [Charles] replaced the ones that the Irish Protestants prefered. Bramhall... was appointed Bishop of Derry in 1634, and from 1636 he led a court of high commission to supervise diocesan courts and enforce state policy, with the power to confiscate and imprison.

The Presbyterians were driven out, with many fleeing to New England on the Eagle Wing. The Black Oath was the final straw, one of the factors leading to the fall of Charles I and the Civil War, as Clotworthy of Antrim appealed to Parliament on behalf of the Puritans and Presbyterians. But the damage was done, the Church of Ireland was rent asunder, the other Protestants driven out, confirmed by the deprivation of any remaining Presbyterian clergy by Bishop Jeremy Taylor of Down, Connor and Dromore.

It appears that tensions between the churches were magnified in the closing years of the 1600s:

Clergy of the Church of Ireland were particularly alarmed by the influx of Scots immigrants. In several parts of Ulster, Presbyterians formed overwhelming majorities - Jonathan Swift was unhappy at Kilroot not only because he was thwarted in love but also because he had almost no Anglicans living in his parish. Ulster Presbyterians threatened the privileges of the established church and made inroads on Anglican congregations too often neglected by worldly or absentee clergy. (307)

It seems to be a bleak century for the progress of the gospel in Ireland, despite the many opportunities that may have been opened through the plantation. Politics reigned supreme, with the cause of Christ relegated to a minor concern or as a tool to be used to beat and break the natives. While lamenting what has gone before, surely we must heed the warnings and seek to ensure that we are a lively gospel witness, not a tool of government or civil society. An island of lost souls still cries out in need, just as Saint Patrick first heard the call and came to preach Christ crucified. Will we play our part in this, our generation?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sermon: Matthew 9:35-38 Look Around, Look Up, Go Out

What can we do to make an impact on our local community? How do we go about introducing people to Jesus? When the church family seems so small, with so many people on the outside, what should we be doing? How can we help people get to know about God’s love for them? As we see Jesus engaged in mission in the gospels, we get a glimpse of how we can follow in his example.

First of all, we look around. Matthew tells us: ‘Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds...’

Jesus has appeared on the scene, ministering around the towns and villages, and suddenly everyone is talking about him. The way that he can teach with authority, heal people, drive out demons, even raise the dead, it’s no wonder that people flock to be hear Jesus. His fame is increasing. The crowds are following. And Matthew tells us what Jesus saw as he looked around: ‘When he saw the crowds... they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’

Have you ever watched a field of sheep? They’ll not all be together in a nice bunch; they’ll be all over the place, doing their own thing. A while back I went for a walk up Slieve Croob in the Dromara Hills with my brother-in-law. There were sheep roaming free on the path, in the ditch, all over the hill. They needed a she[herd to come and gather them together, to keep them safe, to take them where they needed to be.

The people in this crowd are lost, unsure of where to turn, without anyone to guide them, trapped in their sins and burdens, wandering aimlessly. Their life has no purpose, no direction. Matthew tells us, they are sheep without a shepherd.

As we look around us, we too find many who are like sheep without a shepherd. You can see it in young people, where trends develop and change, and there’s peer pressure to follow the crowd. But it’s not just young people. Think for a moment of your neighbours or work colleagues. Some are lost, driven by the desire to keep up with the Joneses with houses and cars and gadgets and holidays. Plenty of money, but harassed and helpless.

Some, though, are caught in all sorts of terrible situations, feeling helpless, not knowing where to turn - as yet another rejection letter is received; or the final demand bills come through the door; loneliness, depression, sickness, burdened and bowed down, under pressure.

People will have all sorts of needs; some obvious, some less so. But alongside all that, deep down is the greatest need - there’s the weight of a heavy conscience, weighed down by sin - yet harassed and helpless, unable to know what to do, or how to get rid of it.

I suspect that, just like Jesus, we won’t have to look too far to find people like this. As we look around in Fivemiletown, we’ll see people who are harassed and helpless; like sheep without a shepherd. It’s one thing to see what Jesus sees; but do we feel how Jesus feels about them?

Do you ever watch TV quiz shows? Sometimes we watch the odd one - The Chase when it was on or Pointless. Have you ever watched a quiz show where the people seem to be really silly? You know the answer, you’re shouting at the TV, you can’t believe they can’t get it, you wonder where they get such stupid people from!

There’s a danger that we could view those on the outside in the same way as my Quiz Show quitters. They might be harassed and helpless, but why don’t they just get it and come to church? We have the answer, why can’t they see that? But that attitude isn’t going to win anyone. Rather, we need to see people as Jesus sees them and feel as Jesus feels about them.

Let’s look again at verse 36: ‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ Jesus, the good shepehrd, sees these sheep without a shepherd, and he has compassion for them. He is moved with pity, with feeling for them, and so is moved to action.

If Jesus has compassion for the lost, then how can we have a different reaction? How could we turn away, not wanting to get involved? We who have also been lost and found, we who know the good shepherd. Just as the Lord has saved us, so we want to see others come to share in it.

As we look around, we see the lost. We have compassion for them, but before we rush headlong to try to help, Jesus points us to the next step. We look around, then we look up.

Jesus says to his disciples: ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’

There’s a staffing problem - there’s more work than one man can take; an overwhelming burden. Just think of the huge job of harvesting crops before tractors and machinery came in. Nowadays a farmer in a tractor can harvest a field in no time, but what if he was going out with a scythe? The work would be overwhelming.

But Jesus isn’t talking about harvesting crops and gathering food into the barn - he’s still looking at this vast crowd of lost souls, people to be brought into God’s harvest-home. People who need to hear about the good shepherd who loved them so much that he gave his life for them, so that they might live; who need to be told that they are not helpless, or hopeless, but can have help and strength - grace - and hope through the Almighty and Everlasting One. The world is vast, the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.

So what to do? Jesus sees the need then turns to prayer, calling on his disciples to do the same. Looking around will lead us to look up as we ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field. Jesus prays because it is the Lord’s harvest. The very thing the Lord wants is for his harvest to be gathered in - and so he will answer this prayer to send workers into the harvest.

It’s not that we have to beg and plead and cajole God into sending out workers, yet he delights to involve us. He calls us to partner him as we pray for gospel workers. We recognise the need, and turn to God to meet it. When we look around at our community, we begin to see the needs, the gaps, the opportunities, the ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had ... or someone did...’ We can’t do it in our own strength or power, so we look up to ask him to send the workers.

This is the Lord’s other prayer - you see, we regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father...) but this is the Lord’s other prayer, asking for the Lord to send out workers into the harvest.

Now you might think that you’re off the hook. You’ve looked around, you’ve looked up - and we’re at the end of our passage. In a few minutes we’ll be praying for our community, so are we in the clear? Just leave it to the Lord and keep your head down?

Sometimes those chapter divisions are in really bad places. You see, we didn’t have those big number 10s for the first thousand years of the New Testament. And sometimes when we read, whether it’s in church or in our quiet times, we go as far as the end of a chapter and then stop. But the story continues. And what we find when we read on into chapter 10 is that the disciples were the answer to their own prayers. They pray for workers, and Jesus sends them out (10:5) to get on with the work.

You don’t have to go away to be a missionary; you don’t need to go to a far off corner of the field to bring in a harvest. As Jesus teaches us in our reading tonight, you just need to look around (and see the hopeless and helpless); look up (and ask the Lord to send out workers to share the good news); and go out (as the Lord sends us to share his love).

This is a prayer that still needs to be prayed - the lost are still lost; the Lord still saves; there’s still room in his harvest-home. So pray, pray, pray; keep praying for your friends and neighbours and colleagues; pray for opportunities to open up like the uniform shop, and other ways to meet needs and show God’s love; and if the Lord is prompting and prodding you to go out, whether across the world or across the street, then go in his strength, with his promises. It’s his work, and he will bring it to completion.

This sermon was preached at the Evening Praise service in Fivemiletown Parish Church on Sunday 18th August 2013.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review: The Plantation of Ulster

Ireland has always been a troubled and contested territory - through the arrival of the Gaels, and subsequent risings and rebellions and conflicts and battles and wars. The northern province of Ulster has seen more than its share of violence, and in this new book, Jonathan Bardon seeks to survey the history of the plantations of the 1600s. 'In seeking the origins of Northern Ireland's present discontents, historians and social scientists alike are again and again brought back to the British colonisation of Ulster in the seventeenth century.' It's an important study, all the more so because of the many 'widely held assumptions' which are flawed (or at least in need of refinement).

There is every indication that this volume will become the key text for the student of Irish history, with substantial detail and extensive footnotes, yet it will also be a good, solid introduction for the general reader with an interest in the history of Ulster. The unraveling of the threads of our present situation is clear and draws the reader in as the story unfolds. Indeed, there are many echoes and recognisable features from those days to these which are emphasised by the author.

The story begins in the 1570s with the various failed attempts at plantation on the island of Ireland. Sir Thomas Smith in the Ards and Upper Clandeboye in 1571 which was destroyed by Sir Brian MacPhelimy; another attempt by Walter Devereux; the planting of Laois and Offaly (Queen's and King's Counties); as well as Munster and Monaghan. A portrait of life in Ireland at the time is presented, with the Gaelic customs and rituals. Queen Elizabeth's war on the Irish Gaelic lords is portrayed, including the huge English losses at the Battle of the Yellow Ford near Blackwatertown. Mountjoy, appointed Lord Deputy, continues to wage the war, including the decisive victory at the Battle of Kinsale on Christmas Eve 1601 - probably due to Irish incompetence. The rout was described in the Annals of the Four Masters in the following way: 'manifest was the displeasure of God.'

The news of Kinsale spread rapidly, with word of 'bonfiers' in London to celebrate the victory - the Ulster custom of Eleventh night bonfires has an even earlier pedigree than the Williamite wars. The intrigue surrounding the surrender of O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone to Queen Elizabeth at Mellifont Abbey is ironic. Unknown to him, but known by Mountjoy - the Queen who had died several days earlier.

In further echoes of current disputes, Bardon notes the frustration held by loyal subjects at the English pardon and restoration for rebels such as Tyrone. As Sir John Harrington wrote:

'I had lived... to see that damned rebel Tyrone brought to England, honoured and well liked... How I did labour after that knave's destruction! I adventured perils buy sea and land, was near starving, ate horseflesh in Munster, and all to quell that man, who now smileth in peace at those who did hazard their lives to destroy him: and now doth dare us old commanders with his presence and protection.'

A similar sentiment heard among many of those who kept the peace and fought the terrorists in modern day Ulster, who now see them in government.

Another resounding feature seems to be the incompetency of government and the triumph of shoddy administration and bureaucracy. The frequency of surveys, reports and inquiries, and the underestimation of the scale of plantation and the overestimation of the possibility of success seems to have been adopted by their successors in the Civil Service!

Something that I found fascinating was the fact of the mass movement of peoples which was occurring in the 1600s. Of course there was the movement across the Irish Sea from England and Scotland to Ireland. There was also the beginning of emigration across the Atlantic to America. But perhaps the most interesting was the Scottish migration to Poland in the early 1600s. Could it be that the Polish people we're welcoming to our shores these days are the children of those first migrants? History will never allow simple xenophobia.

As the Plantation begins with the opportunity presented by the Flight of the Earls in 1607, Bardon continues to focus in on the key players, their personalities and purposes. There is also plenty of information about the development of our counties, cities, towns and villages. The local reader will find many of the features of our surroundings very familiar, and often dating from this time of renewal and plantation. The plantation of Londonderry receives special attention, through Sir Cahir O'Doherty's rebellion and the subsequent plantation by the City of London through The Honourable, The Irish Society.

Bardon draws the story of the plantation through the rest of the seventeenth century, with the horrors of the 1641 rebellion and the ensuing 'civil' wars. As the author notes, 'Few periods of Irish history are as confusing as the 1640s' - due to the various factions in Ireland fighting against and combining with each other based on loyalties and alliances with the factions and sides in the English Civil War.

I was also interested in the role of the Church of Ireland during the plantation - but my reflections on that have grown so large that they'll appear in a separate blog post!

All in all, this is a brilliant book, fairly presenting the facts of the events surrounding the Ulster Plantation, and allowing the reader to draw the conclusions and trace the effects of those heady days. Having had an interest in Irish history (and even written an overview of Irish history), there was much that was familiar to me - a good reminder of 'old friends'. However there was much that was new to me, with fascinating details and local stories that will stick with me.

I thoroughly recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand Northern Ireland as it stands, and those who wish to get a grasp of the turbulent days of plantation in the north of Ireland. The Plantation of Ulster by Jonathan Bardon is available from Amazon(Kindle).

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sermon: Matthew 25: 14-30 The Parable of the Talents

The work has been finished, the time of reckoning has come. Each person has some explaining to do, their actions under scrutiny, trying to gain the boss’ approval. It’s a moment of drama before those all important words are uttered: ‘You’re Fired’. Lord Alan Sugar is looking out for a business partner among the sixteen hopefuls in each series of The Apprentice, and they’re whittled down to the winner - this year the Northern Irish doctor, Leah Totten.

I couldn’t help thinking of the boardroom when I was working on our passage this week. The Master is settling accounts, he’s reviewing the performance of his workers (slaves), and the outcome brings joy for some and loss for others. But before we jump to the end, we need to set the scene.

Jesus is teaching his disciples, preparing them for the time when he is no longer with them physically. They’ve had Jesus with them for three years, but now it’s the last week before the cross, and after that, the resurrection (when Jesus is raised to new life) and the ascension (when Jesus returns to the Father’s side in heaven). Jesus is reminding them that one day he will return - his coming is sure - but what should they ben doing in the meantime? How should we live between the ascension and his return?

Last week, the parable of the bridesmaids called us to ‘watch’, this week, the parable of the talents calls us to ‘work’. We’re introduced to a man who is setting off on a journey. He’s disappearing from the scene, and before he does, he puts everything in order.

It’s the arrangements you need to make before you set off on holiday - someone to water the plants and feed the budgie. The man entrusts his property to his slaves while he is away. It’s still his, but they have the use of it for him.

And it’s here that we sometimes run into difficulties. This is the parable of the ‘talents’ - and as soon as we hear the word talent we might think of Britain’s Got Talent, some special ability. But the talent here is an amount of money. One talent is the equivalent of twenty years’ wages for a labourer - by my reckoning a talent is about £250,000 in our money. This is a vast sum! The man then gives out the amounts to his slaves: 5 talents (£1.28 m); 2 talents (£500k); and 1 talent (£250k).

Jesus has left his disciples to get on with the work, entrusting each one with his property, giving grace to each of us. The work of building the kingdom and spreading the good news continues, as we wait for his return.

So fast forward to the boardroom scene. The master returns, it’s time for the accounts to be reviewed. The first slave has used those five talents, traded with them, invested them, and has made five more talents. He has doubled his master’s money. He’s greeted with a resounding answer: ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

And it’s the same for the second slave. Remember him? He had received two talents, and now, he has two more! The same response, the same welcome, in the exact same words greets him: ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

The master is delighted with their work; they have both been ‘good and trustworthy’ or ‘good and faithful’ - they have pleased their master, and he brings them into his joy. You see, it’s not about doing the same as someone else - one had five, the other had two, yet they both heard the same words. They were faithful with what they had been given. They got on with the work they had been entrusted by their master, so that faithfulness in small things brings the reward of being entrusted with more.

Have you ever had to give a presentation after other people and you get more nervous as time goes on, hearing how they have been so great, and you haven’t really prepared and you think it’s going to go badly? Or perhaps you’re opening that results envelope after your friends have been opened theirs. Eventually it’s the turn of the one talent slave.

Rather than saying what he has done with the money, he rounds on the master: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

The slave has received this amazing trust, given twenty years’ worth of wages - a generous act, yet he turns on the master. He accuses him of being harsh; he simply buried the talent and now gives it back untouched, unused, and unloved. He thinks he’s being safe, now losing or wasting the talent, but he never used it, didn’t put it to work - not even to gain some interest from the bank.

Far from being faithful, the master calls him for what he is: ‘You wicked and lazy slave!’ What a tragedy, to receive so much from the master, and to bury it. He thought that it didn’t matter how he got on while the master was absent - he didn’t need to worry about working. But that slave loses even what he has, and is thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus is calling us to work faithfully as we look towards his return. Could this be the right time to think about how we’re getting on; how we’re working in the kingdom? Over the summer things tend to ease off, but come September with organisations starting again, we’ll be busy. So take some time this week - maybe when you read your Bible; maybe when you’re driving; or if you have a spare fifteen minutes. Ask yourself these questions:

How do I view the master? If we were to ask you, what would you say Jesus is like? The last slave thought the master was harsh, cruel, exacting. Is your Christian life just a dull and dreary duty? Or are you filled with wonder as you recognise the master’s grace and generosity? When you think of how much Jesus has given us; he has left us with the task of being the church in this generation and passing on the good news to the next.

What is the work I’ve been given to do? Just as there were different amounts of talents, so there are different jobs and tasks and opportunities for each of us. If you have children or grandchildren, then you’re seeking to teach them about Jesus - not just when you read or pray with them, but in every moment. Little eyes are watching! Perhaps you’re home alone - could you spend time in prayer for our church or for other situations? Or what about the many ways you can serve the church family - too many to list, but with vacancies for so many things. Commit to reading the Bible to an elderly neighbour; or in a nursing home; or helping Sunday School...

As we rejoice in the grace gifts of our master, so we’ll work for him with all our heart, seeking to do our best in his service. Look forward, and imagine that moment when you hear the ‘well done’ - it will all be worth it, to discover his pleasure.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th August 2013.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Coke: Sharing or Selfish?

Coca Cola have long been the masters of marketing. They may (or may not) have dressed Santa in his distinctive red cloak, but they've had some memorable marketing campaigns. Their current one could yet be the most successful as well as the simplest yet.
Over recent months they've been printing the 150 most popular names in each country. They've even added another hundred names under popular demand. The full list is here. If you watch the ad (this is the Irish version below), or read the cans and bottles carefully, the campaign is focused on altruism: 'Share a coke with...'

It's a nice idea, even if it's rank commercialisation. You share a coke / diet coke / coke zero with someone whose name you see on the bottle, for lots of different reasons. The company wants us to share, to give, to be generous. Now, some people might be doing that, but as with so much of life, the buzz on Twitter and Facebook seems to be selfish. The goal is to find a coke with your own name on it, rather than being given one by someone else...

Some are even taking it badly (!):

This is just a small sampling of the vast numbers of tweets about the Coke name campaign, and the majority are all about us finding our own name, rather than sharing. Something as simple as a bottle of pop, but when the fizz settles, we're all still selfish.

And no, I haven't seen a Gary on a Coke yet...

PS As with any other topic, Twitter excels at bringing out the comedians. Honourable mentions for these two:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sermon Audio: Matthew 25: 1-13

This August we're doing a mini series in the three stories Jesus tells about the Kingdom and the end of time. On Sunday we looked at the first one, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. Here's how it sounded.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sermon: Matthew 25: 1-13 The Wise and Foolish Virgins

I'm getting married in the morning! Ding dong!
The bells are gonna chime. Pull out the stopper!
Let's have a whopper! But get me to the church on time!

So sang Alfred Doolittle in the film My Fair Lady. These days, it’s normally the bride who gets to the wedding late - and sometimes when ministers get together, they share their horror stories of brides over an hour late! For the groom, it can be an anxious time - I was best man for my brother-in-law, who walked up and down the church wondering if she wasn’t coming at all...

Yet in the story that Jesus tells, we find that weddings in his day and culture were a little different. You see, it wasn’t the bride that everyone was waiting for as she got the hair and makeup and dress and whatever all else sorted. Rather everyone is waiting for the groom. He comes to the bride’s house, and the wedding banquet can begin.

In Jesus’ story, though, the focus isn’t actually on the groom. Rather, the camera focuses in on the group of bridesmaids (or virgins, in other translations). I’ve been to some big weddings, but here there were ten bridesmaids! They are waiting outside the venue to greet the groom - who could arrive at any time. There’s no time on the wedding invite; he’ll come when he’s ready. The bridesmaids are ready, they’re waiting, and they’ve each brought their oil lamps with them.

The only problem is that five were foolish. The five wise bridesmaids brought their lamp as well as an extra supply of oil - just in case... but the foolish ones only had the oil in their lamp. It wouldn’t matter. Surely he wouldn’t be late? Were they a bit like the people who keep driving when the petrol light comes on, thinking that they’ll make it, the gauge must be faulty?

And so the bridesmaids wait. They’re excited, they compare their wedding finery, they chat about the wedding and the happy couple, but there’s still no sign of the groom. It’s getting dark, their eyes grow heavy, and one by one, they fall asleep.

Have you ever had a time when you’re fast asleep and then you’re wakened suddenly? The phone rings at 2am and you don’t know where you are. The baby cries and you’re up and ready to do the needful. As these bridesmaids sleep, suddenly the cry goes up ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’

The lamps are gathered up, they’re trimmed ready to show the way for the groom as he comes to his wedding feast, except, there’s a problem. The five foolish ones have no oil left. Their lamps are going out. [It’s a bit like finding the batteries in your torch are done when there’s a power cut] They ask for a loan of some of their friends’ oil. But they need it themselves.

So off the foolish bridesmaids go, to the twenty-four hour Tesco to get some lamp oil, but at that very time, while they’re away, the bridegroom arrives. The wise bridesmaids with their burning lamps greet him and go in to the wedding feast with him. The door is shut, the party begins.

After a while, the bridesmaids with their lamps now burning arrive at the door. There’s no one around. They knock on the door. They expect to get in, but they get a surprising answer. ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ ‘But he replied, Truly I tell you I do not know you.’ The foolish bridesmaids have missed out.

Now why did Jesus tell this story? He wasn’t just sharing a minister story of a wedding he’d heard tell of or been at. Nor was he just giving some advice to wedding guests to (in the words of the Scout motto) be prepared. What’s the point of the story?

We find a clue in verse 1. Jesus says as he begins the parable ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.’ It’s a story that tells us something about the kingdom. Now, if you remember in the distant past of this time last year, we looked at some of Jesus’ other kingdom parables, from Matthew 13. They were about how the kingdom grew and developed (the sower and the soils; the weeds and wheat; mustard seed; leaven; treasure hidden in a field). That was chapter 13. But now, in chapter 25, Jesus is in the week leading up to the cross.

He’s teaching his disciples in the leadup to his crucifixion, preparing them for their ministry after his death and resurrection and ascension. As they’re walking out of Jerusalem, the disciples are awed by the temple buildings, but Jesus says they’ll shortly be destroyed. The disciples can’t imagine this - it would be like us being told the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey would all be in ruins. They ask ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus is answering their questions in chapters 24 and 25. 24 is mostly about the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened in AD70) and 25 gives us three parables of the end, of Jesus’ return.

So in this story (and on the next two Sundays), Jesus is teaching us about his return. This is what it will be like when Jesus comes and his kingdom is finally revealed. Jesus, the bridegroom is coming. It’s the moment we are waiting for; the wedding supper will begin.

We know that Jesus is coming. Yet it seems as if he is delayed. He hasn’t arrived yet. Are you ready to meet him?
On the surface, all the bridesmaids looked the same. But only half of them were welcomed in.

The foolish bridesmaids thought that everything would work out all right. If need be, they could borrow someone else’s oil; and surely they would we welcomed whatever time they landed up. But the door remains closed. The party is inside, and they have missed it. They’re outside.

There’s no second chance when the bridegroom has arrived. You see, some people think that they’ll live life the way they want and convert on their death bed at the age of 101. But which of us is guaranteed today, let alone another twenty or fifty or seventy years? The Lord Jesus could return this very day. Rather than delaying, Jesus urges us to be like the wise bridesmaid, to be ready and waiting, eager to greet him when he comes.

That’s the message Jesus has for us today - which we find in verse 13. They’re words that some preachers would love to have painted above the pulpit: ‘Keep awake’! ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ We don’t know when Jesus will come, but we know that he is coming. Our task is to be ready to greet him, to be like the wise bridesmaids, with lamps burning.

This morning as we join around the Lord’s Table, we find the foretaste of that heavenly wedding feast. May we all be gathered around that heavenly table, and not find ourselves on the outside when the bridegroom comes.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 11th August 2013.