Archives for posts with tag: Daniel Barenboim

Sermon for Mattins on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Whale

Jonah didn’t want to go to preach in Nineveh. Nineveh was a big city in Assyria, Syria today – it’s now called Mosul. Jonah was a Jewish prophet. His people had been enslaved by the Assyrians – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, as Byron put it – and the Assyrians definitely didn’t believe in the One True God of the Israelites. They believed in the Baals and the sacred poles and various other idols, and they were generally immoral and badly behaved. But God had told Jonah, as his prophet, to go and preach to them.

But Jonah decided to disobey God, and he ran away to sea. Our lesson says he took a passage in a ship to a place called ‘Tarshish’, but that word is just a general Hebrew word for ‘the ocean’. He just went anywhere except to Nineveh.

It didn’t go well. They were caught in a storm, and they had to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. As an aside, I wonder whether this is an early reference to the ancient maritime law concept of General Average, defined by the Marine Insurance Act 1906 (s66.2) as ‘… any extraordinary sacrifice or expenditure … voluntarily and reasonably made or incurred in time of peril for the purpose of preserving the property imperilled in the common adventure.’

I don’t want to wander off the track too far, telling you all about the more esoteric things in English maritime law, but I ought to just mention that our law has a wonderful expression, the ‘marine adventure’. It just means the business of sending a ship to sea on a voyage. The Marine Insurance Act, where so many of the principles which still govern maritime law and trade are found, says ‘there is a marine adventure where… Any ship goods or other moveables are exposed to maritime perils.’

‘Other moveables’: this was a law passed in 1906! It gives flexibility for any kind of transport by sea – what about an ‘Ekranoplan’, for instance? [https://goo.gl/images/ydMN5r] Or more mundanely, a hovercraft? Or a marine drone? I think they could all be described as ‘moveables … exposed to maritime perils’. They were very far-sighted in 1906, obviously.

But never mind which shipping line he took, whether they declared General Average, or which flag the ship was flying. The point was that Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh. It begs the question why anyone, never mind just Jonah, would want to stand up in public in a strange place and tell their audience that they’re a bunch of godless no-good libertines. Come to think of it, though: if I stand up in this pulpit and say anything that some of you might call ‘political’, some of you may well give me a hard time. It has been known …

Imagine what it would be like if I were a Jewish rabbi – a preacher – today, going to Gaza and telling the Palestinians that they are all sinners, that the god that they worship is not real – well, not that their god is not real, because the Moslem God is the same God that Jews and Christians worship – but suppose this imaginary rabbi preached that the Palestinians’ understanding of god is faulty – and that the end is coming. I doubt that they would be particularly receptive. It’s not a preaching assignment I would want. And indeed, Jonah didn’t.

But there was a very important extra factor, which would also have influenced Jonah. That was nationality. Jonah was an Israelite, and the people of Nineveh were Syrians (or more precisely, Syrians under the overall rule of Persians.)

Incidentally, I hope it won’t disturb your repose just now if I mention – dangerously, perhaps – that we never, these days, refer to the Jewish people in the Old Testament as ‘Israelis’, but always as ‘Israelites’. Why is this?

When the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was interviewed on BBC Radio 3 before his BBC Proms concert on Tuesday this week, he said something along these lines; (I haven’t tracked down a verbatim recording, but my recollection is) he said that, in the current context of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, if you criticise the Israelis, you are also, automatically, criticising the Jews – and people may allege it is anti-semitic to do so. But Maestro Barenboim, who is an Israeli citizen and a Jew, clearly did not think that it was necessarily antisemitic to criticise Israel, and the Israelis.

Given what the Bible tells us of the search by the Jews for the Promised Land, it’s certainly difficult to make a distinction between Jews and Israelites. The people of Israel were the Jews: the Jews settled in the land of Israel. They were what we would normally call, Israelis. And if so, then the ancient Israelites have become the modern Israelis, one could argue.

Here, in the story of Jonah, there is a very strong anti-nationalist, universalist, theme. In God’s eyes it doesn’t matter whether the people to be prayed for, or to be preached to, belong to the right nationality, whether they are Israelites. When Jonah has been saved by being swallowed up in the great fish, and God asks him a second time to go to preach in Mosul, this time he doesn’t hesitate.

And it works. The people in Nineveh are very receptive to what Jonah has to tell them. They repent; they are forgiven. God doesn’t destroy their city. If you read on in the Book of Jonah – it’s only got four chapters – you’ll see that Nineveh is saved, but, rather surprisingly, Jonah is unhappy: he is cut up about why the heathens in Nineveh, those totally undeserving layabouts, should get this prize. They aren’t the right people to be saved. It should have been the Israelites, the chosen people.

But from God’s point of view, what difference did it make what nationality they were? Jonah seems to have thought that only the Jews, only Israelites, would understand the full theological background, the need for repentance. Heathens, ‘gentiles’, like the Assyrians, wouldn’t get it. They did not worship the one true God and so they didn’t qualify, in Jonah’s eyes. But when the Assyrians, having realised the power of God, saw that God had accepted their repentance, and wasn’t going to destroy them, they started to worship God too.

I think that we sometimes slip into a similar kind of insularity, a tendency to think that nobody who isn’t like us deserves to do as well as we do. I know I sometimes catch myself out being surprised when I find that someone who’s ‘not British’ turns up doing an important job, or where there’s a foreign-sounding name where we’d expect Smith or Jones.

After all, what is wrong with people coming and living here, earning a salary and paying their taxes? I would argue that the Book of Jonah supports the view that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who your parents were. You are a human being like me. The Jewish Law of the Old Testament said, look after the stranger at your gate. In Deuteronomy 10:19 Moses teaches, ‘Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’.

God makes it very clear to Jonah that, as He said through the prophet Ezekiel, He loves all people. ‘He does not want the death of a sinner, but rather that he should repent and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11). That’s exactly what He got from the people in the great heathen city of Nineveh. They repented, and He let them live.

The story of Jonah and the whale is a lesson in universalism. It isn’t just a good monster story. It’s wisdom literature: it’s there to teach a lesson. That lesson is that God isn’t just one lot of people’s god, not a local idol. He created all of humankind. All of us: black, white, brown, Polish, Welsh, Indian: all humans, all equally children of God.

It is the origin of the idea of universal human rights. It took the aftermath of the Second World War for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be drafted and adopted by the United Nations, (and then for British lawyers, led by David Maxwell Fyfe, to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights, which in our law is the Human Rights Act), but the seeds of the concept were sown in Old Testament times. The people of Nineveh were just as much children of God as Jonah and the Israelites.

Perhaps as a parting thought over your lunch, you might think about this. Today if you, we, are the Israelites, who are our Assyrians?

Maybe we should just keep that gate open. And do we need a whale to keep us out of trouble? I hope and pray, not.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 27th July 2014 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Acts 12:1-19.

What a week! The church is being persecuted: Christians are being killed, just for being Christians: there are disciples in prison. Brutality, killing, everywhere. Equally true in our lesson from Acts, and still – even more so – today. In Mosul, near to the ancient city of Nineveh, which Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, memorably said yesterday on Radio 4’s Today Programme, was ‘made famous by that dubious submarine evangelist Jonah’ – you know, Jonah and the whale – fundamentalist Moslems have been confronting Christians and giving them a choice between converting to Islam and death. It was reported that there was an option of paying a fine, but Canon White says he doesn’t think it was real. Convert or die.

Or if you live in Sudan and they think you have changed your religion away from Islam, again you will be killed, killed by due process of law. Dr Meriam Ibrahim was brought up a Christian, but her father, who deserted his family soon after she was born, was a Moslem. Somehow she was accused of apostasy and sentenced to be flogged – 100 lashes (when they reckon 40 is life-threatening) – and then executed. She was heavily pregnant, and was forced to give birth in prison while shackled to the floor. A completely harmless, innocent doctor. But she still had the courage to stand up for her faith. She refused to renounce it. She would rather suffer – and she did. She is worried that her baby may have been damaged by being born when she was unable to move her legs because of her chains.

What a week. We cannot understand the unspeakable horror that is happening in Gaza. 1,000 Palestinians dead and countless more seriously hurt. According to the United Nations and the BBC, almost all were innocent civilians. About 40 Israelis dead, all but three of them soldiers.

Yesterday an British Apache attack helicopter flew over my garden. You could see its machine guns, missile and bomb pods. Imagine that helicopter – because that’s what the Israelis have too – flying towards you and letting loose that vast destructive force at you and your house. Or if not a helicopter, a fast jet or a so-called drone – actually some of them are as big as an airliner – or a Merkava battle tank. You have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. They hit hospitals. On Friday they shot up an ambulance and killed a doctor. One in four of the people they have killed, according to Save the Children, is a child.

I’m not going into the merits of this as between Israelis and Palestinians. The great conductor Daniel Barenboim, who holds both Israeli and Palestinian passports, has written a very good piece in yesterday’s Guardian, http://gu.com/p/4v8bg, in which he says that what is wrong, at bottom, is that both sides want each other’s land. You can argue it all ways – but only one thing is certain, he says, and that is that violence, the use of force, solves nothing.

Of course the Israelis don’t want the constant threat of rockets falling on them (although they have developed the highly effective Iron Dome anti-missile shield system). Of course the Palestinians don’t want to be annihilated by one of the most powerful armed forces in the world. But – and this is what Daniel Barenboim says – it doesn’t help either side to continue the use of force. Remember, Daniel Barenboim knows about getting the two sides together. He created the famous West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which musicians from both sides play wonderfully together. They have been at the Proms, although I don’t think they’re coming this year.

And then there’s MH17, the airliner shot down over the Ukraine. Whatever else may be true about that, the people who died were innocent bystanders. No wonder the Dutch prime minister is so angry, blaming the Russians.

What a week. The poor early Christians must have felt similar emotions, in that Passover time that our lesson was about. They were innocent. But the majority around them, the Roman army of occupation and the Jewish majority, didn’t like them. They wanted to be rid of them. Maybe some of the animus against them was like the prohibition against apostasy in parts of Islam today. The early church contained a lot of people who were of Jewish origin. They were seen as apostates, people who had turned away from the true religion. They must be killed.

That was what they had in mind for St Peter. He knew. He said, ‘The Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me … from all the expectation of the people of the Jews’. Sinister understatement – to have been delivered from all the ‘expectation’. What did they expect? More death. Execution. Stoning. What a wonderful escape!

But now, here, unless you work for one of the relief agencies or for one of the broadcasters or newspapers, it’s difficult to be really involved. Really involved – not with the Roman world 2,000 years ago, and not with the Middle East today, but here in Stoke D’Abernon. What are we supposed to do?

What would Jesus do? It’s clear, in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew chapter 5. ‘You have learned that they were told, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” You know – the Israelis say, we will stop our military operation for 24 hours – but if there are any rockets, we will retaliate. An eye for an eye. But Jesus said, ‘…. resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ Daniel Barenboim. I don’t think he’s a Christian – but he’s got it. Turn the other cheek. Don’t launch an artillery strike. And certainly, don’t fire off any more rockets either. No more war, however angry, however justified you feel you are.

Now that may be absolutely right – but is that likely to do any good? Just for all of us good Surrey people to nod sagely and say, yes, they must stop killing each other: it’s surely not very likely to do anything, is it?

I’ve held back from my look at this terrible week two good things, two good things which might still give us a glimpse of grace, a reason to hope.

The first is in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. It says, ‘Peter was kept in prison under constant watch, while the church kept praying fervently for him to God’. Kept in prison under constant watch – just like poor Meriam Ibrahim. But the church was praying to God for him – just as, all over the world, and certainly here at St Mary’s, Christians have been praying for Meriam. So the first is that there was a lot of prayer, prayer for release from the tyranny of oppression, prayers for release from imprisonment for Peter and for Meriam.

And of course the second is that the prayers were answered. St Peter escaped. His chains fell off. ‘Now I know it is true’, he said; ‘the Lord has sent his angel’ – he has answered all those prayers. A million people signed petitions calling for the Sudanese government to release Dr Meriam. Many, many of those online petitions were also prayers. And now she has been freed: not only just freed, although that is good enough: but she has been welcomed and blessed by Pope Francis. The prayers were answered. ‘The pope thanked Meriam and her family for their courageous demonstration of constancy of faith. Meriam gave thanks for the great support and comfort which she received from the prayers of the pope and of many other people who believe and are of goodwill’, said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, according to Friday’s ‘Guardian’.

At the ‘house of Mary, … where a large company were at prayer.’ We are also in the house of Mary. Although we are far away from the strife in the Middle East, I think we can learn from these happy stories, of Peter’s escape from prison and from Dr Meriam and her family getting away safe. We can learn that it is important always to pray. Prayers are answered. They were, they are, answered here.

As we pray, let us pray for all the injustice and violence in the world to stop, and for the innocent prisoners to be freed. Let’s not forget that, as we bring our concerns before God in our prayers, He may speak to us. He may inspire us to take action. We can give, or we can agitate, we can even be political.

Canon Andrew White said yesterday that in his work in Iraq, the most important help and support had come from the people of the UK. Britain more than anywhere else had tried to help the Christians in Iraq. So let us consider what we can do to help the Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief based in St George’s Church in Baghdad. Look them up with the help of Google – http://frrme.org. Look them up. Give them some money, if you can. And say a prayer.