Archives for posts with tag: Chelsea

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 …

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on 17th November 2013, Second Sunday before Advent
Daniel 6 – Biblical Big Cats

In the 1960s, if you had gone shopping at Harrod’s, you would have found that they had an Exotic Animals Department. You may remember the wonderful story of the lion cub who was sold in Harrod’s and who became known as Christian the Lion. He lived in Chelsea with two young men who owned a trendy furniture shop, for a year before he got too big and was taken to Kenya to be released into the wild. There is a very sweet story about him meeting up with his former owners several years later, and fondly remembering them.

We tend to be rather soppy about cats – and that includes the rather daft idea that lions and tigers and leopards, big cats, are just that, big cats. If only they got to know us properly, we think, they would be just like big pet cats, with sweet, gentle dispositions, keen on sleeping and climbing under counterpanes on the spare bed when no-one is looking: happy to be stroked and to have their tummies tickled.

You will remember the famous zoo owner and gambler, John Aspinall, who kept tigers and encouraged his keepers to go into their enclosures with them, to play with them as pets. Unfortunately, those tigers didn’t know what Mr Aspinall expected of them, and on several occasions, they devoured their keepers.

The truth is that even domestic cats do not have entirely reliable tempers. My two Bengals are very good at rolling on their backs, purring and generally appearing very friendly, inviting you to tickle their tummies: but you should be aware that the height of ecstasy for both of them is then to grip your hand in their paws and give you a good bite! Nothing personal, of course. It’s just what cats like doing.

Which brings us to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. There were several Persian kings called Darius, but most scholars agree that this was Darius I, who died in 486BC. He set up a complicated administration structure for the Persian empire. According to the Book of Daniel he divided Persia into 120 administrative zones, although the contemporary account in Herodotus’ Histories suggests that Darius only set up 20 regions, called satrapies, and his descendant, King Xerxes, increased the number of satrapies, perhaps indeed to 120.

It is possible that the Book of Daniel was written not just in order to tell historical stories – and indeed it may be that the history is a little bit shaky in places – but rather for prophetic teaching purposes, to demonstrate the power of God. So Daniel going into the lions’ den illustrates this. It is an escape story, just as in the earlier chapter, chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three other Jewish exiles in Persia, in Babylon along with Daniel, were cast into a fiery furnace because they refused to worship a golden image which Nebuchadnezzar, the king before Darius, had made. And again, God saved them and they were unhurt, even though the fiery furnace was so hot that the people who were throwing them into it were themselves consumed by fire.

Daniel portrays Darius as a benevolent king, who was tricked into signing into law an edict, that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from him, the king, for thirty days – and according to the commentators, ‘prays’ should better be translated as ‘makes a request’ either of gods or of humans – that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from the king, should be punished by being thrown into a den of lions.

Interestingly, none of the historians can find any evidence that the Persians had dens of lions, or that they used them to deal with criminals as a way of execution. The Romans certainly did. They had a special expression for it, damnatio ad bestia, condemnation to the beasts. The main reason why the early Christians were martyred by being thrown to wild beasts was because they refused to worship the emperor; similar circumstances to those in which Daniel found himself.

There are a couple of other interesting things which we should note in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. One is the way in which King Darius refused to contradict the law which he had made, the edict. The laws of the Medes and the Persians could not be changed. Indeed that expression, ‘The laws of the Medes and the Persians’, became synonymous with the idea of immutability, unchangeability in the law.

I think also that we are meant to understand that it was not one of those cases where the Israelites on the one hand were God’s chosen people, and on the other hand there were their oppressors, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, people who didn’t believe in God and who were vastly inferior to them. In this case, the Medes and the Persians were decent people, who treated the Jews in exile fairly and well. One defining characteristic of the Medes and the Persians was that they recognised the rule of law.

As Lord Denning famously said, ‘Be you never so high, the law is above you.’ He was quoting Dr Thomas Fuller, who said this first in 1733. This is a hallmark of civilisation. This is something we look for today as a desirable feature in all countries. When we talk about ‘failed states’ – Somalia, perhaps Iraq, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, the rule of law is said to have broken down.

So here Darius felt that, whatever he personally may have wanted to do in order to be compassionate to Daniel, he was not allowed to do, because there was a higher principle, the rule of law. And so he very reluctantly sealed the lions’ den with Daniel in it, with his own signet ring.

This is a terrible story. So often in ancient literature we don’t get the gory details. The King simply decrees that somebody should be done in, and he is: witness Herod with John the Baptist. But here, King Darius personally supervises his good friend and trusted minister Daniel being fed to the lions.

Clearly those lions were very fierce, because when Daniel’s story has had a happy ending, and Daniel has survived a night in the den without being eaten, King Darius makes sure that all the people that tricked him into making the law and putting Daniel in mortal danger by it, are themselves thrown into the den, with their children and their wives; ‘Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.’ So it’s not the case that the lions’ den had been filled with special soft lions like Christian the Lion. These were normal cats, and for Daniel to survive a night with them really was a tremendous miracle.

This is one of the great Bible stories, which I’m sure we all remember from Sunday School, from our earliest days. It’s right up there with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. But are there any lessons which we can learn from it as grown-ups today? What about the laws of the Medes and the Persians? Are there laws today which result in cruelty? Is there anyone like Daniel, who, despite being innocent, is being thrown to the lions? Can we by prayer, by relying on God like Daniel did, in fact negate the effects of these immutable laws?

I will leave you to ponder on that. There are 38 shopping days left until Christmas. It’s a fortnight until the beginning of Advent. Christian the Lion and his descendants are no longer available in Harrod’s. Perhaps in Advent there is another lion that we should remember. What about Aslan, the lion in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’? Now there was a Christian lion!