Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Palm Sunday 2007
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. Luke 19:38
Tiredness seems to heighten awareness. Everything stands starkly against the background. Sounds are often piercing, loud sounds are unwelcome. Experiences of such moments can become engraved on the memory.
Sitting at a meeting one afternoon, an Irish Government official talked about overseas aid and showed a map of Tanzania. One of the towns featured was a place called Songea. As the speaker gave statistics, I drifted to Songea.
Songea was a poor town. It seemed to owe its existence to the fact that it was a road junction and was where the tarmac road ended. To the east the tarmac road went to Dar Es Salaam, to the north, south and west the roads were dirt tracks, difficult to pass even in good weather.
I was the only non-African I saw in Songea. We had chicken and chips in a cafe for our evening meal. At the end of the meal David, the driver, said, ‘I will walk with you to the hotel’.
‘It is only across the road’, I said, ‘I think I can find my way’.
David looked around. ‘They know you are English, they think you have money. I will walk with you’.
The hotel was a series of cell-like rooms around a courtyard. There were bars on the window. I shifted all the furniture against the door and dug my insect repellent spray from my rucksack. Anyone who tried to come through the door would get it in their eyes.
My alarm clock went off at 3.30, we were leaving at four. I tried to get water from the tap in order to wash, there was none. Having travelled all the previous day on hot and dusty roads a shower would have improved the smell.
I put on a clean shirt and cotton trousers and ventured out to find our jeep.
It would be another 2 or 3 hours before it was daylight. The town was quiet except for the plaintive cry to morning prayers coming from the town mosque.
Songea was a miserable place. There was not much to thank anyone for and yet the Moslems in the town were happy to get up in the night to say their prayers. I am not sure what Moslems say in their morning prayers but to get out of your bed at that time of the morning in Songea would have demanded a considerable degree of commitment.
Life in Songea was hard, you got up in the morning and you worked because if you didn’t work you didn’t eat. There would have been many mornings I’m sure when those being called felt that they were too tired to get up, but they came to the mosque because they believed that their prayers were their duty to God.
In comparison with those Moslems in Tanzania, Christians in Ireland are a lazy, uncommitted and indisciplined lot.
We want a religion that fits in with us, we don’t want demands, we don’t want to make any sacrifices, we don’t want any discipline. We think that being Protestant gives us carte blanche to pick and choose what we want. We love the nice bits of the story, but we don’t want the bits that disturb us.
Like the disciples of Jesus there are many of us when things are easy, but when we are asked for commitment we quickly make excuses. Isn’t that exactly what happened in Jerusalem? When there was the big parade on Sunday everything was grand, but by Friday only a few women are left.
The disciples learned commitment and discipline with the power of the Holy Spirit. Thankfully for us they did, otherwise there would be no church today. How willing are we to follow their example?
I was reading an interview with a football manager. He spoke of how important it was to have discipline within his team, not to cope when they were winning, but to cope when they were behind, to lift their heads and to lift their game. St Paul uses the example of training for a race as an example of how Christians should live the spiritual life. We would think nothing of a sports coach who did not expect commitment and discipline from the team and yet we think that we can live our spiritual lives without the same sort of effort.
This coming week is a chance to get into some training, to read the Scriptures, to pray, to share in worship – to ask some questions of ourselves. Sportsmen who don’t train become lazy and ineffective, I wonder how often we fall into the same category.
It is hard to conjure up pictures of Songea, the shanty houses, the dirt roads, the shabbiness and make-do quality of everything. If you lived your life there you would hardly want to get out of bed in the morning, but the Moslems there said their prayers five times a day, because that is what they did. Can we honestly say that we keep on praying because we know no other way?
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, shouted the crowd. It was easy to shout when it cost them nothing, when the way of the cross became clear they melted away.
What about our commitment? What about our discipline? What about the way of the cross?