Sermon for Evensong on Palm Sunday, 13th April 2014
Isaiah 5:1-7, Matt. 21:33-46 – Three sad stories

There were three sad stories that I read in the paper this week.

The first was about the way in which some of the changes in the government benefits system are affecting people who are disabled or who have long-term chronic illnesses. The Disability Living Allowance is being abolished, and a new Personal Independence Payment is being brought in. The trouble is that, in many instances – one recent study said it is affecting up to 40% of cases – people who used to get the Disability Living Allowance (this is people who have terminal illnesses, for example, where there is no realistic prospect that they can go back to work) are now being assessed as ‘fit to work’ and have to wait for an appeal before they can get any money. This can take months. In addition, apparently, a lot of people have been approved to get the new payment, but it still doesn’t come, because things are ‘lost in the system’.

Macmillan Cancer Care have been reported as saying that cancer patients are even missing appointments for chemotherapy because they don’t have the money for a bus fare.

Another sad story concerned an 18-year-old schoolgirl, Yashika, who has been deported by the Home Office as a failed asylum seeker, weeks before she was due to take her A Levels. The bit which really distressed me was this, which I read in the Church Times:

The Home Office .. [took] this vulnerable girl away from her family … [and placed her] alone, in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, for six weeks during December and January (including Christmas and New Year), and again for two weeks in March.

… Three times, she was put through the ordeal of suddenly being informed that she would be deported imminently. On the first occasion she was driven to Gatwick in a van, only to be turned around at the last minute and returned to the detention centre.

On the second, she was informed at the eleventh hour that the decision had been reversed – both confusing and distressing events in themselves. On the third instance, escorted by five guards, she was placed on a flight from Heathrow, seated in an isolated position in the plane, and flown to a country where, as far as our authorities were concerned, there was no-one to meet her.’
[Rev. Steve Chalke in ‘Church Times’, 11th April 2014]

The third story – just to get all the ghastliness over in one go – was the story of the trainee solicitor (I’m ashamed to say) who left her dog to starve to death, locked up in her flat.

There are lots of things which we can say about all these cases: there are lots of things wrong with each one of them. They’re all horrifying. But I just want to pick out a couple of things which I think are relevant on Palm Sunday.

The point that struck me about the welfare changes affecting sick and disabled people, and what struck me about what happened to the schoolgirl Yashika, was that somebody, somewhere, was actually being cruel face-to-face – face-to-face with the poor disabled people or with that terrified young girl. There were five guards on the plane. There are the people at the Dept for Work and Pensions who receive the phone calls or open the letters chasing up unpaid benefits, and who fail to respond.

There’s a government minister involved. The author in the newspaper said she had tackled him, on the Andrew Marr Show. She said, ‘He waved it away airily’. ‘Oh, it’ll all be sorted by the autumn’, he claimed. Or again, ‘He batted away the idea with a shrug.’

Nothing illegal going on here. Nothing illegal in deporting the schoolgirl Yashika. Nothing illegal in denying benefits or paying benefits late. Due process of law has been gone through.

What seems to be lacking is any kind of compassion. Jesus’ second commandment, the ‘golden rule’, ‘Do unto others: love you neighbour as yourself’, doesn’t seem to be evident in either of the first two cases.

So far as the poor dog was concerned, there was of course law-breaking, and the cruel person has gone to jail for it. But the essence of what she did was the same – lack of compassion, lack of fellow-feeling. She didn’t even vaguely put herself into the shoes of the dog, if I can put it like that. She didn’t think what the dog would have felt as he starved to death. She didn’t – she refused to – feel his pain.

The same with the Home Office people who organised the deportation of Yashika. They weren’t there as she was chucked off the plane in Mauritius, a place that her family had fled from in the first place, because they believed that they were threatened. These Home Office people apparently couldn’t care less that this 18-year-old girl – just like one of us’ daughters – had been forcibly separated from her family, and was being dumped in a hostile country with no-one to help her or care for her. This was being done in our name: but what kind of compassion is it?

The same with the government minister: not his job, the nuts and bolts of putting his excellent plans, his policy, into effect. Not his job that his policy means that civil servants are instructed, as part of their job, to deny the means of livelihood to sick and disabled people.

Well, maybe you excuse the minister. What about the people on the ground? Surely they know that they are making people starve? All over the country, people who’ve been denied benefit are turning up in our food banks.

So what about Palm Sunday?

‘There is a green hill far away
Without a city wall
Where the dear Lord was crucified …’

It was another inhumanity. Jesus the king, riding on his donkey, wasn’t going to triumph: he was going to die. He was going to die horribly. And there were people who were going to do it to him: soldiers and the whole apparatus of the Jewish state-within-a-state, and of course Pontius Pilate and his Roman administration.

It wasn’t just an administration or a system, it was people. It was people who actually hurt Jesus, who did the unspeakable things to him which we will be reading about and thinking about in the next week.

Jesus’ death was not just a spectacular injustice. There was due process. The Pharisees and the Sadducees passed a death sentence on Jesus as a dangerous trouble-maker – translation – freedom-fighter, terrorist. He threatened the good order of the Jewish administration. So although we would say that the whole business of Jesus’ crucifixion was totally unjust, we should note that it was procedurally correct, according to their lights at the time.

Jesus was ‘the stone which the builders rejected’. That rejection, that crucifixion, that God-killing, was the worst thing that mankind has ever done. Far worse than the cruelties and injustices which we see around us happening every day. That poor dog. That poor girl. The cancer patient without the bus fare to get to their chemo session.
But in a sense, these cruelties and injustices which we see today are related to Jesus. He showed us how to live. He showed us how not to be cruel. In a sense, if those things are still happening, in a real sense, He is still being rejected: he is still being crucified.

Why is there so little love and compassion? Why does the minister just shrug when people starve? Why does no-one say, ‘It’s cruel, it’s wrong, to take a girl away from her parents and surround her with five guards on a plane’. They are all just like the soldiers who beat Jesus, who nailed Jesus to the cross.

But remember, even men under orders can see the light. Remember what the Roman centurion said. ‘Truly this man was the son of God!’ Then God raised Jesus from the dead – after the ultimate humiliation, the ultimate affirmation. ‘The stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner’ – the cornerstone.

We say that Jesus ‘saves’. This isn’t a cue for a weak joke making an unflattering comparison between the Lord and, say, Petr Cech at Chelsea. We say that Jesus made ‘a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.’ Does this mean that we don’t need to care about our cruelties and inhumanities, because in some way Jesus has ‘paid the price’ on our behalf?

I think not. What sort of God would that be? I certainly don’t believe that God is in the business of human sacrifice. How could He be a God of love, if He really was prepared to hurt His own son? Indeed, if we are proper believers in the Holy Trinity, we could put it another way. In that Jesus was God, was God in human form, how could God hurt Himself?

Instead, I think that God’s sacrifice, Jesus’ Passion, was a sacrifice in the sense that Jesus entered into the depths of our suffering. He experienced the worst that we can do to each other. But it didn’t destroy him.

If we repent,
if we stop our cruelty and inhumanity,
if we have faith in Him, we also will not be destroyed.
If … If …

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