Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on the 8th Sunday after Trinity, 10th August 2014
Acts 14:8-20

I went to two memorials this week. The first one was to remember the start of the First World War, to give thanks for the self-sacrifice and bravery of the people from this community who served in that war.

The second was much more personal. It followed a Nigerian custom that, if a person dies, they hold a memorial service for them ten years later, ‘ten years on’, to recall them to mind and to celebrate their lives. They were a charming young couple who had come to St Andrew’s about the time of the Millennium, with a couple of small children. Both originally from Nigeria, but brought up in England. Rather glamorous, successful young people. I had begun to know them slightly, over coffee after the 10 o’clock service.

Then, at the age of 38, with absolutely no warning, he had an asthma attack which brought out a latent defect in his heart, and, despite the hospital’s best efforts, he died. It must have been terribly tough for his widow; and it was terribly tough again, earlier this week, when she was called upon to deliver a tribute to him in the service and to play host at a fine reception afterwards, to celebrate his life. He would have been very proud of her.

The First World War commemoration was in a sense a commemoration of something which didn’t really make sense: and for sure, the second was commemorating someone who had been taken away far too young. No logic, no justification for what happened, there either.

Although, in relation to the First World War, you can say that there were important principles at stake, upholding alliances, protecting weaker countries against aggression, and so on, there was no big, overriding reason for it, like the fight against Nazism in the Second World War.

The First World War was said to be ‘the war to end all wars’: but quite patently, this was not true. We are still surrounded by warlike behaviour, the resort to force and violence, when reason has failed.

In Gaza, we are invited to support the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal for rebuilding and relief. I hope that we will all be generous, because the need is huge. But it did occur to me, when I heard the appeal being made on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee on the wireless, that it is extraordinary that Israel is not being asked to pay for the damage which it has done.

Israel is a rich nation, with one of the most powerful armies in the world. They have destroyed large parts of Gaza, in circumstances where it is doubtful whether they had any right to do so in international law. Will the Palestinians be able to send the Israelis a bill? I hope so. But I rather doubt it. It would be nice to think that the International Court of Justice could entertain a claim for damages.

Some people locally have been giving to support a Palestinian village, Wadi Fuqeen. Wadi Fuqeen is at the bottom of a hill, in a valley. At the top is an Israeli ‘settlement’, illegally built. Not only does the settlement – and by the way, you shouldn’t think in terms of some kind of pioneer encampment when you talk about settlements: you should instead have a picture of something like Milton Keynes – not only does the settlement divert away most of the water which used to feed the village of Wadi Fuqeen, but also they have arranged their sewage system so that the outfall flows over the fields farmed by the villagers. And of course the so-called security barrier – the wall – passes between the fields, where the village farmers work, and their houses where they live. So even if you do have some unpolluted agricultural land, it will take you a long time to reach it.

None of this, of course, justifies Hamas firing rockets at the Israelis: but I think you can understand the frustration and sense of injustice which might have prompted them to do it. I believe that there are many other stories like that of Wadi Fuqeen in Palestine.

The common feature of all these episodes is that, when diplomacy fails, when people haven’t persuaded each other by normal rhetoric and argument, then they may well resort to violence.

It’s interesting that St Paul on his missionary journey, from Antioch to Iconium and then to Lystra and Derbe, had a disagreement, a running disagreement, with some of the Jews that he met on the way. He was a travelling preacher, and his practice was to preach in the local synagogue.

He came into conflict, not only with devout Jews, but also religious competitors, competitors for the title of being true prophets. It’s interesting how St Paul dealt with them. We don’t get descriptions of him having some kind of Socratic dialogue with his opponents, at the end of which they were persuaded by rational argument. Instead, when he came across Elymas, the false prophet, the magus, the seer relied upon by the Roman governor, he didn’t try to persuade him, but instead he just made him temporarily blind (Acts 13). It may be that, if he could do this, he was thinking of his own temporary blindness, which of course was the prelude to his coming to faith in Jesus. So perhaps he hoped that the same thing would happen to Elymas.

Then when he was about to preach to the people at Lystra, which in Greek folklore was supposed to be a place where the ancient gods, like Jupiter and Mercury, had lived, instead of simply offering reasoning and argument, he started off by doing a miracle. He healed the crippled man.

It doesn’t seem to take us any nearer to finding an answer to the big question which keeps coming up today. How can we resolve disputes and differences, especially when they concern where your home is, where you live, what laws you obey – or which god you worship?

The depressing thing is that it always seems to come back to violence. Even for poor St Paul. At the end of our lesson in Acts 14, it’s almost mentioned in passing, but nevertheless it happened, that some Jews who had followed him from Antioch and Iconium, cornered him; they stoned him and left him for dead.

It doesn’t bear thinking about, the mechanics of what must have happened. St Paul must either have been protected by God, or have been unbelievably lucky, because miraculously he survived. It’s not claimed as a sort of resurrection event, but it must have looked like a miracle to the Christian congregation.

What Paul preached was not a clever argument, not conventional wisdom: he said, ‘We bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.’ [Acts 14:14].The true God had showed Himself, had showed that ‘he has not left you without some clue to his nature, in the kindness he shows: he sends you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons, and gives you food and good cheer in plenty’. [Acts 14:17, NEB]

When I think about my friend’s commemoration of her late husband, it shows how what Paul preached about can work. How did the young widow with two small children cope with the loss of her husband before he was 40? How has she found the strength, over the last ten years, to bring those two children up so well – one is just starting in the sixth form, and the other has passed the exams and takes up a place at St John’s this September?

How did you do it? I asked her once. It was so unfair – why did it have to be her husband? But she said quietly, ‘My faith really helped.’ She trusts in God. She prays. It’s not easy. But her prayers are answered.

We mustn’t forget God, when these crises press in on us. In Gaza, what would Jesus say? What does God want us to do? God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’: Jesus added the generous words of the Sermon on the Mount. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. So Israel must not automatically retaliate, if the Palestinians in desperation fire off old Soviet Grad rockets, which the Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile defence system easily intercepts. Israel must not automatically retaliate, still less retaliate with overwhelming force.

But how can we get this message through to them? Just as Paul didn’t try to reason, so much as to bring in God’s power, to demonstrate His presence, so we must pray for the Holy Spirit to bring these warring parties out of their blindness. We Christians have a distinctive message to give, which in a sense is not logical. It must no longer be OK to reciprocate, to hit back. Violence does not change people’s minds. The point about Gaza is not really about whether a particular action taken in retaliation was ‘proportionate’. It is that any retaliation is wrong.

In these most important areas, perhaps there is no real logic. War is chaos.

‘Thou whose almighty Word
Chaos and darkness heard,
And took their flight;
Hear us, we humbly pray,
And where the Gospel-day
Sheds not its glorious ray,
Let there be light!’ [J. Marriott]

Our task as Christians is to keep sending this message of peace, to keep listening to the word of God in church and in prayer. Whoever is hurt, whoever is in need; whoever has lost their home: they are our neighbours.