St Pappan’s Day 2011

A very interesting photo on the internet yesterday, of the first of many funerals of the victims of the Norway massacre. Bano Rashid was an 18-year old Kurdish woman, a Muslim immigrant. She was buried in the parish graveyard at Nesodden church near Oslo, the first in a new Muslim section of the graveyard; and the funeral was conducted by two Muslim clerics and the local Lutheran pastor who happens to be a woman. It was like an object lesson in the kind of new diverse community against which Anders Breivik carried out his violent act of hatred. It pointed towards something better than racism and sectarianism.

One might wonder why the funeral took place in the Christian parish graveyard; or, rather, why part of the graveyard should be set aside for Muslims. The Church of Norway is Evangelical Lutheran; through the Porvoo Agreement it is a sister church of ours. Unlike ourselves, it is an established State Church, and so functions as the default church for the majority of Norwegians. Apparently about 80% of Norwegians still get christened in it; although average attendance at church services involves about 3% of the population. They may not generally want to be there Sunday by Sunday, but clearly the local church has an important place in the life of the community – the building in Nesodden was founded in 1175 – and there are times when it is the most natural place to be. Hence the appropriateness of the Christian pastor and the Muslim imam leading the local community in ceremonies of grief and hope.

Today we commemorate our founder St Pappan, of whom we know very little, mainly that he was here. He represents the Christian community in this place. We claim him as our own; like us, he was shaped by the scriptures, conformed to the creeds, enlivened by the liturgy and sanctified by the sacraments. This site, like so many of our church-sites, is a history in miniature of the church in Ireland: the holy well, possibly pre-christian; the medieval font and bell; the pulpit and altarpiece, from the days of the Domvilles and the Protestant Ascendancy; the late Victorian organ; the early 20th century stained glass. Pappan’s people have been here for a long time; seldom numerous; but together with Pappan’s other people – for we are not his only heirs – we are called to serve God in this time and place.

St Paul, in today’s reading from Romans 9, reveals his disappointment that many, perhaps most, of his fellow-Jews have refused to accept the claims of Jesus to be God’s Messiah. They have such privileges, he feels:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah”

Such an heritage of faith, and yet they don’t see Jesus as the culmination and completion of it all, something which is so obvious to Paul himself. He is really distressed that he cannot awaken in them the insight he has received. We might feel a similar disappointment, that, in a country with a long and distinguished inheritance of Christian faith, there is  a growing number of people who are indifferent to Christ – by and large they don’t feel the need – and a growing number who are actively hostile to religion in all its forms. We are going through a period of upheaval – not the first or last – and that is unsettling. We might take encouragement, though, from the Norwegian experience. Church-going might be low; but the Church still has a ministry to offer, both important and appreciated. One just knows that that little bit of inter-faith hospitality in a graveyard has sown seeds of good hope for that community.

Our Gospel today, the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14: 13-21) is a eucharistic story; what Jesus really feeds the crowds with is himself, the Bread of Life. The reading suggests several ways in which this feeding happens. The crowd gather to listen to Jesus; and his teaching is so often designed to awaken our desire for God’s kingdom. He looks on the crowds with compassion – people have a hunger to be listened to, to be understood, to share burdens. He heals their sick – and if the ailments of the body are now dealt with by the physician, yet there are ailments of the spirit that also need to be treated. And Jesus turns that crowd into a community, sharing resources together so that all have enough and more than enough.

The role of Pappan and his people, or Canice and his cohort, or Mobhi and his mob, or any other Christian community, is to make the Bread of Life available to all who want it. We are to awaken the desire for God’s kingdom, which means listening to the dreams and visions of others as well as proclaiming our own. We are to be compassionate – not manipulative, not condescending. We are to be a community where there is healing for hurts and wounds, where we practise forgiveness and repentance. And somehow we are to build community, so that resources may be shared for the good of everyone. As we commemorate our founder, we pray for grace to play our part well in the long story of God’s Church in this place.

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