Archives for posts with tag: commandments

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent, 4th December 2016

1 Kings 18:17-39, John 1:19-28

‘John Vavassour de Quentin Jones
Was very fond of throwing stones
At Horses, People, Passing Trains,
But ‘specially at Window-panes.

Like many of the Upper Class
He liked the Sound of Broken Glass.

It bucked him up and made him gay:
It was his favourite form of Play.’ (Hilaire Belloc, 1930)

Those of you, who have watched, perhaps with consternation, the referendum and its aftermath in this country and the election of the seemingly appalling Trump in the USA, might like to pause and reflect on these words by Hilaire Belloc. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones. In the first half of the last century, ‘like many of the Upper Class, …he liked the sound of broken glass.’

People sometimes rebel in a very irrational way. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones lost his inheritance because a stone which he threw hit his rich uncle by mistake, and he cut him out of his will. John Vavassour just wanted to break things: he clearly had no idea what his actions would lead to.

I think one is tempted to say, that neither did many of those, who voted for Brexit or who voted for Donald Trump, know what they were voting for either. These were votes against things rather than votes for anything in particular.

They were expressions of alienation. When Michael Gove – who used to write leaders for The Times, and so presumably is an educated man – encouraged his supporters to have nothing to do with experts, he pandered to this sense of alienation. It has been said that this populist backlash is a rejection of the elite, of the intelligentsia, of metropolitan liberal sentiment.

In this climate, we Christians are somewhat on the back foot, in the face of a rising tide of secularism. It might seem rather far-fetched, to imagine a scenario today like that described in our first lesson: a sort of bake-off of sacrifices, in which the prophet Elijah is bringing King Ahab back into the fold after he had lost his faith in the One True God and started to worship the Baals.

Elijah organised a ‘spectacular’. ‘You call on your God and I will call on mine, and let’s see whose god can cook the beef on the altar’. And if we are to believe the story in the Bible in 1 Kings, God responded to Elijah’s prayers and roasted Elijah’s ox in a spectacular way. Whereas of course Baal, being just a figment of the heathen imagination, did nothing – or rather, wasn’t even there at all.

So not surprisingly, Elijah was listened to. He was the greatest of the prophets. He was in direct touch with God. He was God’s mouthpiece on earth. But we can’t imagine anything happening even remotely like Elijah’s spectacular today.

In St John’s Gospel, the introduction to the Good News, to the story of Jesus himself, is the story of John the Baptist, ‘preparing the way of the Lord’. Again, it’s really difficult to imagine a modern scenario which is anything like this. Just as, by and large, people don’t become influential or command an audience by doing miracles, as Elijah did, so if you take another step back and try to imagine the scenario involving John the Baptist, it is very, very different from our experience today.

What John was doing is mentioned almost just in passing: he was baptising people. The account in St John’s Gospel concentrates much more on the significance of what he was doing. ‘Why baptizest thou them, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?’ Today, if you talk about baptism, it is synonymous with christening, with Christian initiation of a little child; and it’s also how the little child gets his or her name. Naming, not repentance.

There is no equivalent of what was by all accounts a mass movement, something that people naturally did, to go and wash ritually in the river Jordan: to wash away their sins and iniquities, as well as becoming physically clean.

You will recall that passage in St Mark chapter 7, where the Pharisees pull Jesus up for eating without washing his hands first. I’ve always felt that if you came across that passage for the first time today, you might protest that, from a public health point of view, anyone following Jesus’s advice might well catch some disease or other! They even saw things like washing completely differently.

If we try to tell people about the true meaning of Christmas, and the Gospel story, I think we should be a bit cautious about the fact that quite a lot of the story reflects a world which is totally different from our world. I think that there is a danger that people listening to Christians talking about the Gospel and the true meaning of Christmas may be put off, may even be alienated.

There was somebody in the audience on the BBC Question Time programme on Thursday night, which came from Wakefield in Yorkshire, a very assertive and gruff person, who, despite the fact that he was shaven-headed and dressed as a football hooligan, was said to be some kind of teacher.

He loudly asserted on several occasions during the programme that everyone who had voted to leave the EU had been voting to leave the Single Market. He said things like, ‘Everybody knew that a vote to leave meant a vote to leave the Single Market’. Now leaving aside the point that, as a matter of fact what that man said can be challenged on a number of levels, starting with the fact that the question put to the referendum was just a simple choice between leaving or remaining in the EU, and nothing else, the striking thing was that he was impervious to reason.

I’m not sure what subject he was a teacher of, but one hopes, for his pupils’ sake, that it was woodwork or PE: because although several people on the panel gave him very clear and well argued responses, which if true, completely contradicted his proposition that, if you voted one way in the referendum, that automatically meant that you were in favour of something else, he was completely deaf to all argument. But maybe that’s being rude to woodwork and PE teachers. This alleged teacher wasn’t interested in argument, or reasoning, or experts, and he certainly discounted all the posh people on the panel. They were obviously not gritty or Yorkshire enough for him to take them at all seriously. Sadly, almost the whole audience was with him.

So what would a prophet today have to do or say in order to carry conviction? What is the good news, or the call to obedience, if we follow Elijah, that a prophet today should be crying in the wilderness? What is the equivalent of baptism in the river Jordan for today’s people? How would a preacher get through to the man on Question Time?

I’m not making a political point. I’m not saying whether Brexit is good or bad, or Trump is good or bad, but just that, in those cases, people seem to have ignored reasoned argument and voted as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, voted for something negative, something which they perceive as not coming from the ivory tower of the elite liberal establishment.

People have in effect been throwing stones. And they’re in very good company. John Quentin de Vavassour Jones came out of the top drawer of society ‘.., like many of the Upper Class,… he liked the sound of broken glass’. This man in Wakefield, who asserted his non sequitur so positively, that something unsaid was the unanimous will of the people, this man was voting for something which would almost certainly harm him: it would very likely harm a lot of his fellow citizens. But he didn’t care. He was throwing stones.

How do we Christians deal with this? How do we deal with somebody who is impervious to reason, and is convinced that Christianity is wrong, or does not have anything relevant to say, or is going to disappear anyway? Because if you do follow that rather bleak outlook, and believe that there is no God, would you necessarily think that it is wrong to be xenophobic, or racist?

Unless you believe that it was God who created all people equal in his sight, how would you justify the concept of human rights? How would you avoid being led astray by seemingly reasonable voices, like a friendly man in the pub telling you that he’s not a racist, but that we just have too many immigrants – even though there is ample evidence that immigration is really good for this country and that it fulfils a number of really important needs?

Even though there is considerable evidence that the National Health Service will be in even greater trouble if it loses its doctors and nurses from abroad, both from the EU and from outside, although there is plenty of evidence that immigrants as a whole contribute over 30% more in taxes than they receive in benefits – even though there is this positive evidence, there are still people in numbers who will parrot sentiments which are not rational. If they’re not racist, they are very similar to it.

The other irrational thing is that the anti-immigration sentiment seems to be strongest where there aren’t actually any – or where there are very few – immigrants. The audience in Wakefield the other night cheered every xenophobic, little-England statement to the rafters. But I believe there are hardly any immigrants from the EU in Wakefield.

This is very strange. Clearly people were not operating rationally. They were not listening to the experts, and they were not bothering to think about where our moral imperatives come from. If you are a Christian, you will believe that we are all children of God. If you are a Christian, and indeed if you are a Jew or a Moslem, you will believe that God has told us how to behave, in His Ten Commandments.

‘Blah, blah, blah’. Yes, blah, blah, blah. For some people, what I’m saying is just meaningless noise. I wonder if that scares you as much as it does me. Let us pray that God will make himself known, not in some cosmic bake-off, but in everything that we say and do, and that we will not be dismissed as people with nothing relevant to say.

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Sermon for Evensong on Remembrance Sunday 2015

Isaiah 10:33-11:9; John 14:1-29
‘We will remember them.’ This has been a time of remembrance today, looking back in remembrance on all those brave people who have given their lives in the service of their country in war. Now in the evening of the day, ‘at the going down of the sun,’ it is time perhaps for us to look forwards, and reflect on the question of peace.
‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them …. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.’ This beautiful and mystical scene is the prophecy of Isaiah. And then in St John’s Gospel, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions …. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’
When I started to study Latin and Greek, the Latin was Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico (‘about the war in Europe’), and the Greek was Xenophon’s Anabasis, another history of war. Julius Caesar, as you know, invaded Britain in 55 and 54BC – less than a century before the time of Christ. It was definitely a warlike time throughout the Roman Empire.
Jesus grew up surrounded by wars. Before then the world of the Old Testament was permeated with lots of violence and wars. The story of the exodus from Egypt was very violent and the entry into the promised land equally involved a number of battles.
In the passage we have read from St John’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ Presumably, that includes ‘Thou shalt not kill’. But even so, Jesus himself also said, ‘I came not to bring peace but a sword’ (Matt. 10:34). So would Jesus have belonged to the Peace Pledge Union, and worn not a red poppy, but a white one, today? Just as today most people see war as something to be avoided if possible, but never to be ruled out as a last resort, in Jesus’ time, war was an unavoidable fact of life.
Following St Thomas Aquinas, the church developed a doctrine of the ‘Just War’. (See Summa Theologiae 40.1). This is what Aquinas says. ‘If a war is to be just, three things are needed. It must be waged by the due authorities, for those who may lawfully use the sword to defend a commonwealth against criminals disturbing it from within may also use the sword of war to protect it from enemies without. … the cause must be just, …. And those waging war must intend to promote good and avoid evil.’
It might be instructive to compare these principles with the principles laid down in the United Nations Charter allowing a modern nation lawfully to declare war – or at least to make war, even without a declaration – on another. These days the requirements for a war to be just are: that it should be in self defence; or because a treaty obliges us to wage war to protect another nation – as we were obliged by treaty to protect Poland at the beginning of WW2 – or because the approval of the United Nations has been obtained.
But the original ‘just war’ principles are still influential. War can only be waged lawfully by a sovereign nation: you cannot have private wars, vendettas, as they have in Sicily between Mafiosi. The cause must be just. A nation can’t wage war simply in order to benefit itself. So Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum, literally, ‘living space’, territorial aggrandisement, was not a legitimate occasion for making war.
And the means employed must be proportionate. Proportionality is an old legal principle dating back at least to the lex talionis, an eye for an eye, (Deut .19:21): the point is that it is just an eye for an eye, not more. There were similar provisions even earlier, in Babylonian law and the laws of Hammurabi.
There must also be a reasonable expectation that the war will be successful. This does still come, perhaps, from Aquinas. He says, “The Lord’s words, ‘I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance’, [Matt. 5:39 ] must always be borne in mind, and we must be ready to abandon resistance and self defence if the situation calls for that.” (Summa Theologiae 40.1) Pyrrhic victory might not be lawful. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus certainly went much further than the Lex Talionis.

Are we content that there is, or there can be, such a thing as a just war? Does it matter that some of the wars which have been waged, at least arguably, as just wars, have not achieved their objectives? See for example the situation in Iraq today, or even more tragically, in Afghanistan.
Is it reasonable to ask, what would Jesus do? Would he have something to say, for instance, about the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, (the rationale behind the holding of nuclear weapons), or of ‘shock and awe’ as used in Iraq. Would these doctrines square with the doctrines of just cause and proportionality in the case of MAD, or proportionality, in the case of ‘shock and awe’?
The theory of nuclear deterrence does not depend on the rightness of one’s cause. The opponent is deterred not because we are right, but because we can kill him. Perhaps it is proportional to respond to a threat of global annihilation – with what? With a threat of global annihilation. But perhaps that simply illustrates that the principle of proportionality is inadequate in the context of nuclear weapons. And again, what about a nuclear suicide bomber? MAD will not affect them.
I for one was very encouraged when Parliament refused to back military action in Syria. It seemed to me that the criteria for a just war were indeed not properly met. There was no threat against this country, so as to raise a question of self-defence. There was no treaty obligation to help some of the Syrians against the Syrian government – how could there be? And what was the likelihood of success – if indeed one could agree on what would constitute success? Of course, the question may come up again soon.
So much of our Remembrance Day liturgy and poetry was inspired by WW1. That was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’ – which must be a perfect example of Aquinas’ second test for a just war, that the cause must be just. There can surely be no more righteous cause than the eradication of war for the future.
But even in this most worthy objective, war was not a solution. Indeed the seeds of the Second World War were sown in the aftermath of the First one. Can we honestly point to many wars and say they have really achieved anything?
Perhaps universal pessimism is not justified: it was vital that Nazism had to be defeated: war was the only way to do it; the war succeeded. The war on Nazism succeeded at least in that the military threat to this country was removed – it was justified according to the principle of self defence.
But one cannot change people’s minds by war against them. Just as there are still people who are Nazis, even in this country, and there certainly are still Nazis in mainland Europe, it is certainly arguable that people have been inspired to take up terrorism by their believing that the West has waged war unjustly in the Middle East.
This is a terribly difficult area. Clearly we can be, and we are, really thankful for the bravery and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. That is the main purpose of Remembrance Sunday. But it is much more difficult to know where our duty lies as Christians in the face of the threats to peace which the world now faces.
We must say our prayers, we must pray for world peace. But also we must be alert, we must scrutinise everything that is done in our name, especially if warlike acts are being prepared. ‘At the going down of the sun’ we will remember. We must remember – and because of what we remember, we must be careful. And we must be just.