Archives for posts with tag: god’s holy mountain

Sermon for Evensong on the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 23rd October 2016
Ecclesiastes 11,12, 2 Timothy 2:1-7 Falling off the High Wire

Cast your bread on the waters. Take a risk. Buy a ticket in the lottery, perhaps. ‘Have a portion in seven, or in eight’. What on earth does all this mean? 

In Hebrew Qoheleth, the ‘preacher’, or ‘teacher’, or ‘the speaker’ – whatever the Latin word ‘ecclesiastes’ means – has a rather cynical outlook. You don’t know how a baby takes shape in the mother’s womb. You don’t know how God decides that one baby should spring to life and another not. If you are a young person with all the grace and beauty and energy of youth, make the most of it. Because it won’t last. 

But this wonderful asset, of being young, is ultimately useless, is ultimately ‘vanity’. We will all have to meet our maker at some stage and account for what we have done in our lives. There is nothing for it; the only thing you can do is to obey God’s commandments and do your best.

It’s rather an odd set of sentiments to find in the Bible. Usually we read about how God cares for us; that if we follow God’s commandments, or turn away from bad things that we have been doing, we will be ‘saved’. What sort of salvation is it? Perhaps we shall be saved, in the sense that the Good Samaritan saved the man who had fallen among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho: saved, taken to hospital, picked up in a lifeboat – saved in an earthly sense. Or alternatively, there is the vision of heaven, the vision of eternal life. Being saved in the sense of having eternal life. 

I gave a birthday present to the lady who is my personal trainer at David Lloyd’s gym the other day. I should say that, as you can see, I am not her model student, apparently because of the things I like eating and drinking rather than because I’m doing the wrong exercises. But even Charles Atlas couldn’t do a better job on me than Liz Ferrari.

Anyway, I decided to give her a book, a book that she would enjoy; and I found a lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced travel book. But it was a travel book with a twist. The idea was that, in each of the exciting or beautiful places around the world, there was an activity which you could do. You could run up mountains or cross bottomless gorges on rickety rope bridges. You know, all those rather extreme sports. She likes that sort of thing.

Liz was pleased with the book. But it got us talking about risky activities. I confessed that I don’t really like going to the circus. I know that unfortunately the lion tamer and the elephant man or the beautiful girl choreographing sea lions in evening dress are not what they seem, and circuses don’t have them any more. Unfortunately there was a lot of cruelty involved in training those animals. We know better now.

But what about the Cirque du Soleil, those circuses that have no animals, but just have acrobats, trapeze artists and people on high wires? I can’t bear to look. I can’t bear to look because it seems to me that the risk of falling is terrible. Is there a safety net? If there is a safety net, thank goodness, because if they fall, we can hope that they will not be badly hurt.

But why is it often somehow more exciting, a bigger box-office draw, if the artist on the high wire does it without a safety net? Why do people pay more to see something like that? Something really dangerous. When Philippe Petit walked on the tight-rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, 107 storeys up, why was that to be celebrated? If he had fallen, like the people who jumped out of the windows of the burning towers on 9/11, he would likely have been dead, we understand, before he hit the ground. 

I can’t bear to watch it. I don’t want these people to risk being maimed or killed just for the sake of giving spectators a thrill. I’m not even sure what that thrill is, really. We don’t have wild beast shows like the ancient Romans – and that’s good. The Romans who went to the arena to watch these shows – gladiators and Christians against each other, and against lions – and, I suppose, people who go to bullfights or boxing matches – all go because they want to see somebody surviving even through there is a terrible risk, and some people get hurt. 

They want to see Cassius Clay; but they’re not so fussed about Joe Frazier or Sonny Liston or George Foreman. I don’t think people really want to go to see people or animals being hurt, but I really wonder how the thrill works. Because it could happen. The man could fall off the high wire. The girl might not catch the hands of her partner hanging down from the trapeze. It’s a risk. 

And somehow people say that it is a good thing to have an ‘appetite for risk’. It’s supposed to be good for the character of children to do risky things. Of course there has to be a ‘risk assessment’ to make sure that the risk is not too great.

I’m sorry, but I think this is all nonsense. ‘They shall not hurt or kill on my holy mountain,’ says God, through the prophet Isaiah. ‘The lion shall lie down with the lamb, and the little child shall play on the hole of the asp’. There will be salvation. But how? Ecclesiastes points out how in individual cases it may not work. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.’ 

I just went to see probably one of the most disturbing and terrifying films that I’ve ever seen. It didn’t involve dinosaurs; mountains didn’t explode like they do in James Bond films; Bruce Willis didn’t slaughter half the world. There was no terrifying car chase, and there was no love interest.

But nevertheless, it’s a film which will live on in my mind’s eye for a very long time. It was about what happens when you fall. Why do you fall? Why could you fall? Was it because you were a bad acrobat, if you somehow deserved to fall? When you are lying, maimed, on the ground, can you reasonably expect that there will be somebody to care for you and put you back together again? 

I won’t spoil the plot for you. All I would say to you is that you should go and see ‘I, Daniel Blake’ before very long. 

Ecclesiastes doesn’t really offer any answers, for all his pretty words. ‘A time to laugh: a time to cry. … For everything there is a season.’ That’s Ecclesiastes. Vanity. Is that what we believe? Where are the seeds of salvation, and what is salvation? On God’s holy mountain, there. And there, ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’.

But where is that mountain? It’s not a place for extreme sports. Is it all right that in the trapeze artistry of life, some people don’t make it? They fall. But as Ecclesiastes says, we don’t know which ones they will be. Then we see the refugees in their dangerous boats, or the young ones in Calais, who, whatever the newspapers may say, are young – but look old. They look old because of the risks that they take every night, trying to jump on trains and into lorries to get through the tunnel.

They are risk-takers. But they’re not risk takers for someone else’s enjoyment. They have no alternative. Their houses are destroyed. Their relatives are gone. They are unable to work – although they’d like to. Why them, and why not us?

What is it about the fact that we happen to live here, where they want to be? For them to be in England represents salvation. In Ecclesiastes, there is no salvation. It’s just the luck of the draw. Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity. What a bleak vision. It must look like that when the bulldozers come, and the gendarmes escort you to a bus, to take you heaven knows where. Where they definitely don’t speak English. 

But Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbour’ – love that young man, who is, you know, just an economic migrant. Think about it. Of course he’s an economic migrant. He is hungry. He has no money. He has no money and he is hungry, because he is a refugee, because he has been driven out of his home. 

How would we feel, if we were driven out from our home? Just imagine if London had been invaded by IS/Daesh. Just imagine if large parts of greater London, including Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, had been flattened in the fight. If our brave boys had had to become guerrillas and fight house to house. In the eyes of the enemy, we had become combatants. And we had to leave. We had to get away from our dangerous place. Everybody who could had to pack up their cars and get away. But where would we go?

Could we get on a ferry, or through the Tunnel? And find a new life in safety, in Europe? Would they welcome us? Would we be able to speak the language? That must be what it feels like to be a refugee. There are hundreds of thousands of them – millions, even – and about 12,000 of them on our doorstep. About 1,000 of them are children. Is it vanity? Is it emptiness, just a spectator sport?

Although some people do like watching people on the high wire, I do hope that, in this area, we won’t: I hope that we realise, as a society, and for those in power as a government, that there are some risks that should not be taken. There should always be a safety net. Not as in Ecclesiastes, for whom, however awful things are, it’s just too bad: everything is vanity. 

Instead, we Christians should feel very confident that we have a better example, the example of the man who said that we should love our neighbour.

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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.