Sermon preached by the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
The Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton at the Festival and Civic Eucharist in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral on
Saint Patrick’s Day 2015
Yesterday one hundred years ago – 16th March, 1915 – John Crowther, from the South Douglas Road in Cork, set off to France. The October before – on 29th to be precise – he had volunteered for service. By 9th May he was in the middle of the fighting. First he was reported missing, then ‘reported killed.’ That’s all the newspaper report says: no date is given. Nothing more: gone!
The photograph – from the newspaper, grubby now in the 100 years that have passed, shows still a youthful, fresh face – like any of the lads you’d see these days heading along that same South Douglas Road in Cork to school, to meet their friends, or to their sports club.
Putting faces to the names carved in stone memorials around our county has been driving our WWI memorial project here at St Fin Barre’s and soon the emerging work will be on display.
Back to my point: Putting faces on human situations is crucial. It’s not a uniquely Christian point. It’s the decent thing to do. But there is an onus on Christians, arising from their faith – the faith we celebrate here today on this St Patrick’s Day and its coming to Ireland – arising from that faith with its simple – deceptively simple – summary given by Jesus Christ himself – simple, but radical, challenging, and which so often eludes us as we strive to fulfil it – ‘Love God; love your neighbour as yourself’ – there is this onus on us to put real faces on real people as try to figure out what loving them involves.
We had a weekend of birthday parties: mine on Friday, one of our sons joined with another friend in Dublin on Saturday for a joint 21st. The 21st isn’t until later in the month, and anyway his twin brother is in the States, so the party will probably actually be in the summer. I was thinking it’s 18th birthdays they really celebrate nowadays and my mind back to my own eighteenth. I was also away from home in Canada.
A group of my fellow students met with me to celebrate. I still have a small book they made and wrote in to mark that occasion in March 1978. They filled it with quotations. One of those quotations has stayed with me most of my life. They are famous words attributed often (I’m not sure they were original to her) to the American diplomat, politician and activist – First Lady of the United States of America from March 1933 to April 1945 – Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whether or not they were original to her is uncertain but she did use them:
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
You can see how such a hierarchy would inspire the idealism, vigour and imagination of youth. Experience and age demands, however, a more nuanced approach. Ideas – concepts, aspirations, hopes, strategies, vision – however you think of those, cannot really be separated from events, places and people, from the ordinariness of people’s lives.
Big debates about big ideas cannot be had in the abstract; they must be grounded in the real experience of the lives of our fellow human beings. One of the risks of any big debate in any community, society or institution, is that we take to ourselves the luxury and relative safety – or we even draw the battle lines – by having the discussion without putting names, faces and human experience on the idea. Such is a risk as we approach the marriage referendum next May; we already are seeing too much of it in the public space.
Big concepts such as marriage, relationship, love, commitment, family, parenting are all rooted in and given expression in the lives of real people, made in the image of God. When we participate in the debate, formally or informally, publicly or privately, we are walking on the holy ground of other people’s lives.
When we allow ourselves to dislocate the people from ideas, we can all too easily dehumanise them, and objectify them, people who, like ourselves, are also children of God. And that’s not only a risk in this debate. Labels and categories, for example, are convenient ways of removing the faces and human experience from what is being said: ‘the unemployed’, ‘the sick’, ‘the disabled’, ‘the immigrants’, ‘the gays’, ‘the single mothers,’ ‘the homeless’, ‘the poor’, ‘the traditionalists’, ‘the liberals’, … the list is endless, of the ways that we risk removing people and their experiences from our reflection about big ideas.
If the simple demands of a radically challenging Christianity – Love God; Love your neighbour as yourself – are to mean anything, then we ought to discuss big ideas by putting ourselves in other people’s – our neighbour’s – shoes. The words of the old Catechism come to mind: ‘My duty towards my neighbour, is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me …’
And that brings me in conclusion another quotation my friends put in my birthday book all those years ago. Again the origins are uncertain. It was a quotation from the tradition of what today we call ‘the First Nations’ people in Canada: ‘do not judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.’ The same idea isn’t it – of putting oneself in another’s shoes?
In the Roman world, which included the first century Palestine of Jesus, Roman soldiers had the right to enlist a member of the population – the occupied people – for forced labour, as a porter to carry the soldier’s equipment for example. Naturally, the local people deeply resented this practice: but they had no choice. The verb used in the Greek is a rare one an comes from the Persian postal service – meaning ‘to dragoon someone as a porter.’ And here’s the point, it’s only used in one other place in the New Testament – when Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross of Jesus on the way to the crucifixion. And what did Jesus teach – unbelievably and uncomfortably? He said:
‘ … if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.’ (Matthew 5.41)
That’s the extent to which the Jesus of our Christian faith, asks us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, even our enemy’s shoes. Ideas and debates cannot be conveniently incised away from people, their stories and their experiences. Loving our neighbour as ourselves is not easy in this Christian faith we celebrate today. Wrestling with what it actually means to love God, and to love our neighbour is what our Christianity has to be.
Otherwise we may as well reduce this to a green-hued, hurdy-gurdy, festive world, a commercial opportunity, in honour of someone many are now calling Patty. Whoever that is.