Archives for posts with tag: Mosul

Sermon for Mattins on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Great Fish

 

There are a surprising amount of really contemporary references in the story of Jonah and the whale: although having said that, the first thing to say is that we now know that a whale, if that is what swallowed Jonah, isn’t a ‘great fish’, of course – a whale is a mammal.

 

The Lord told Jonah to prophesy against Nineveh, ‘that great city’, to make it clear to the people that the Lord was not pleased with them, ‘for their wickedness is come up before me.’ Nineveh is still in the news. It is now called Mosul, and it’s in modern Iraq.

 

Jonah ran away; he disobeyed God. As usual in the Old Testament, the Jews are up against the Gentiles. Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, Gentiles. Being told that he should go and criticise their way of life as ‘wicked’ wasn’t likely to end well for Jonah. So he disobeyed, and ran away to sea.

 

The first clue, that this is not just a nice story, is the name of the place where Jonah was heading, Tarshish. No-one really knows where it was. Traditionally it has been identified with Tunis or Carthage; but there are no archaeological remains in either place to bear this out. It seems to be a kind of symbolic place, symbolic as being a great centre of commerce and trade. The little Book of Jonah – only four chapters long – is really a piece of religious teaching, allegorical rather than a factual historical account. So one has to weigh up all the bits of the story in that way. What does each thing really mean, or what does it illustrate?

 

An exception, however, is when the ship gets caught in a storm and is being overwhelmed, and the ship’s crew, the ‘mariners’, jettison cargo in order to lighten the ship. In maritime law there is a concept called ‘general average’, defined as an unforeseen, extraordinary sacrifice made in order to preserve the safety of the ‘maritime adventure’ as a whole, that is, the ship, its crew, passengers and cargo, and the cost of the sacrifice is shared among all of them. It’s a very old concept, first mentioned as part of the Lex Rhodia, the law of the island of Rhodes, in about 800BC. The Book of Jonah was written about 400 years later – although it makes out that its context is the rise of Assyria and the defeat of Babylon, also about 800BC. The law of general average is still practised today in London.

 

But even here the straightforward ‘story’ aspect is modified by some philosophical, ethical, material. The ship’s captain and crew had picked up the fact that Jonah has disobeyed ‘his’ God, and the mariners rather oddly drew lots as a way of seeing whom among them to blame for the storm.

 

The logic seems to have been that they – and it seems from the context that they were a mixture of faiths and nationalities – thought that one person on board must somehow have caused the danger that they were in: so if they got rid of that person, they would be saved. Casting lots to find the person was a way of leaving the blame to God to assign, not just luck. Jonah drew the short straw, and the others felt confident that he must be the one who caused it, because not only had the lot fallen on him, but he was known to have done something wrong – he had disobeyed God.

 

And yet the crewmen were very reluctant to throw Jonah overboard, which was what the purpose of drawing lots was – it was like one of those ‘balloon debates’, where at the end of each round, someone has to jump out of the balloon, to keep the balloon in the air. Jonah however accepted his fate, and said the storm would subside if he were tossed over the side. They had asked Jonah what his religious affiliations were – they weren’t Jewish like him.

 

So when Jonah finally got chucked over the side, at his own request, it was another symbolic act. He, the Jew, the member of God’s chosen people, was being sacrificed rather than any of the less-favoured Gentiles, the motley assortment of other races and beliefs among the crew.

 

This week we finally managed to show the new film ‘The Shack’ in our Spiritual Cinema at Church Gate House. There will be another showing on 5th September if you’d like to see it. As we can’t show it on our big screen, we’re doing it in the lounge, to no more than 20 people at a time. It is a very spiritual and moving film.

 

I won’t spoil it for you by telling you much about the plot. I just wanted to mention that, early in the film, one of the characters tells the story of an ‘Indian princess’, (meaning a Native American), who, when when her tribe had fallen ill with some plague, threw herself to her death down a waterfall, on the understanding that her sacrificing her life would give life to others. It sounds very like ‘God so loved the world ..’ [John 3:16f]. And here, Jonah is being sacrificed in order to – in order to do what? Placate an angry God?

 

The idea is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Taking someone else’s punishment for them, or the Jewish idea of a scapegoat, an animal – poor thing – on whose back all the community’s sins and iniquities was metaphorically loaded, before it was driven out, most likely to starve, in the desert.

 

But where is God in such a process? Granted that He wouldn’t set out to inflict unjust and undeserved punishment on anyone, does He nevertheless accept those sort of sacrifices, and respond to them? I won’t try to give you a ready-made answer: I want you to think about it yourselves. What sort of God would demand, or at least accept, a human sacrifice?

 

Think about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, whom he loved, as a burnt offering on an altar. Abraham took Isaac up the mountain, tied him up and put him on top of a pile of wood, and then he reached out to pick up a knife, which he had placed where it was easily to hand, to kill Isaac.

 

And all of a sudden God called out from heaven to Abraham, telling him not to harm the boy. The idea was that God was testing Abraham, seeing how obedient to him he was. And the most important thing is that God didn’t want the sacrifice. God isn’t a cruel or hurtful god.

 

So when we say that Jesus ‘died for our sins’, I would suggest that it’s rather more complicated than a substitutionary atonement. I don’t think that God demands human sacrifices.

 

So, spoiler alert! I’m just going to fill in what happens next in the Book of Jonah. He is swallowed up by the great fish, or whale: he is spat out unharmed after three days; he praises God for saving him: this time he obeys his instructions, and willingly goes to Mosul, to Nineveh, and denounces the city. In 40 days it would be sacked, overthrown, he told them. And the inhabitants of Nineveh, far from turning on him as he’d feared, suddenly show signs of remorse, regret and repentance. Jonah had made a prophecy enjoining on them a strict diet and turning away from their wicked ways. (They don’t say what the wicked ways were.) And God spared them the destruction He had threatened.

 

What happened next is surprising. Far from being pleased about the way that Nineveh had been spared, Jonah was angry. Why? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

 

What was behind Jonah’s anger? Perhaps it reflected a current debate in Judaism about punishment: should it be aimed at rehabilitation or retribution? Jonah thought punishment should be final and merciless. God had condemned the city. Why was He now hanging back from punishing it? But God isn’t vengeful: He is merciful.

 

God had laid on the whale to swallow Jonah – not to eat him, but as a kind of submarine rescue. After three days it puked him up again, unharmed. Clearly it was not actually a whale, or Leviathan, or a great fish, or there would have been bits of him missing. Similarly importantly, God had recognised that the inhabitants of Nineveh had repented, and changed their ways, in response to Jonah’s prophecy.

 

The conclusion seems to be that, whatever things may look like, God does love us – and if we do something wrong, he is willing to forgive us. Hallelujah! But even so, in Jonah’s story there’s quite a lot to think about over lunch. What should our attitude to crime and punishment be? What sort of sacrifices does God ask us to make?

 

Bon appetit!

Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, 17th August 2014
Jonah 1 – Nineveh

Jonah and the whale. Actually, it was a big fish, according to our lesson. But I’m not going to get into a zoological discussion about whether the only ‘fish’ big enough to swallow Jonah was a whale, and whether whales are fish. In Psalm 104, ‘there is that Leviathan: whom thou hast made to take his pastime [in the sea]’. Perhaps the big fish was Leviathan.

But the point is that Jonah, the ‘useless prophet’, as Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of St George’s, Baghdad, has called him, Jonah was running away from going to do what the Lord had called him to do, namely, to ‘cry against’ or to ‘denounce’ that ‘great city’, Nineveh. He decided to take a sea cruise in one of the famous ships of Tarshish rather than tackle the ungodly of Nineveh. Unfortunately the ship encountered very heavy weather, and the ship’s crew were making what those of you who worked in EC3 will recognise as a General Average sacrifice: throwing cargo overboard to lighten the ship: an ‘extraordinary sacrifice made for the preservation of the ship and cargo’, as the textbook, Scrutton on Charterparties and Bills of Lading, puts it.

In those days sailors apparently believed that the seaworthiness of the ship might be adversely affected if they were carrying a bad man as a passenger, and so Jonah was closely questioned about his antecedents. The sailors drew lots to discover whom to blame – God would select the one to throw out, they must have thought – and, the lot having fallen on Jonah, they wanted to know all about him.

It made them feel worse that he professed to be a devout Jew on the one hand – ‘I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land’: whereas on the other hand they knew he was running away from doing the will of God – he’d told them as much.

Jonah can’t have been quite as useless a prophet as all that – he bravely offered to be the one chucked overboard, and after the crew had tried manfully to avoid the need to lighten the ship any further, they reluctantly chucked him over the side.

However, Jonah didn’t drown; he was swallowed up alive by the big fish, a.k.a. ‘whale’, probably, and after three days the fish sicked him up on the shore. After that he didn’t mess about any more, but went straight to Nineveh and got on with prophesying the word of the Lord to the people there.

You can read the happy ending, if you keep on reading the Book of Jonah – a quick read, as it only has four chapters. What I want to concentrate on now is Nineveh, where Jonah was preaching.

We are told that Nineveh was a great city. It was situated on the River Tigris, in what was then Assyria, and now is Iraq. The apostle Thomas, ‘Doubting Thomas’, is said in some traditions to have passed through Nineveh on his way to India, 700 years after Jonah. ‘Finding that the people there worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he told them their messiah had come.’ [White, A., 2011, Faith under Fire, Oxford, Monarch Books, p.71] Nineveh and its modern successor city, Mosul, have been Christian since the earliest times. Indeed Mosul, until very recently, is said to have contained the biggest Christian population in the Middle East.

But, as we know, since the end of the Iraq war, for the last decade the Christians there have been under greater and greater attack. At first, Iraqi Christians went for sanctuary to Mosul; then al-Qu’aida started to attack them, and now Islamic State, which used to be known as ISIS, the terrorist group said to be even worse than al-Qu’aida, is attacking the Christians and all the minorities, anyone different from themselves. Just now we hear about the Yazidi, another minority group in the north of Iraq, driven out of their homes into the mountains.

Imagine what it would be like to encounter one of these IS people. What would you say to them? Like Jonah, we could say, ‘We believe in the one true God, maker of heaven and earth’, and we could suggest to them that this was the same god that they believe in. But they would say that we need to believe that Mohamed, not Jesus, was the last true prophet – we could agree that Jesus was a prophet, although for them that’s all He was.

Who is right? Is the answer to this, whatever it is, sufficient reason to kill those who see it differently?

How would we go about establishing what the truth is? Is something true, or right, or good, because God says it is? How would we be sure that we have heard the words of God correctly? Or are things good by their very nature, and God simply recognises that?

If one side says that God has told them to convert the other side, or kill them if they refuse, how best should we deal with this? Is it a military question or an ethical or theological one?

Perhaps one way of looking at this is to say, ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Matt.7:16). What are the fruits of the IS approach, and what are the fruits of the Christian Gospel? Murder and mayhem on the one side, ‘love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith’ on the other. (See Galatians 5:21-22).

Murder and mayhem. There was another massacre yesterday in a village near Mosul called Kawju. At least 80 men of the Yazidi faith were killed by Islamic State fighters. They were offered a choice between agreeing to convert to Islam or death.

In the face of this, of course it becomes more than just a question of debate or persuasion. People need to be protected, and this is necessarily a military question. Even though the use of force does not do anything to remove the cause of the terrorism, even though it does not persuade the terrorists, it is the only thing which will prevent them, in the short run, from harming innocent people.

The West has sent mainly air forces to attack the IS fighters and drive them back. There seems to be evidence that these air attacks have held up the IS sufficiently to allow many of the refugees penned up in the mountains to escape: but still there is no-where permanent for them to go.

So far, I confess that, listening to this sermon, (if you’re not resting your eyes, of course), could be like listening to the news on the radio or watching Newsnight. It’s all happening a long way away and the issues it raises are all pretty rarefied. Could it actually affect us, here in Stoke D’Abernon? Of course we’re horrified by the various reports of atrocities, but what can we do about it?

What Canon Andrew White suggests, in his very inspiring book which I’ve just been reading, ‘Faith under Fire’, (op.cit., pp126f), is a series of ‘R’s’: relationships, risk-taking, relief and reconciliation.

Relationships and risk-taking. If you get to know people, form relationships with them, it’s much more difficult for them to think of you in the abstract as ‘the other’ as aliens, as subhuman, so you can be attacked without getting a bad conscience. And of course it works the other way round. We don’t belittle them.

Taking risks is an Andrew White trademark. He says he was inspired by Lord Coggan, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who told him, ‘Don’t take care, take risks!’

Forming relationships and taking risks. It means that one has to take the risk of contact with the bad people, with people who may well be terrorists. We may not be like Andrew White, on the spot, in the front line, so we may never be likely to meet a terrorist – but we can support people like Andrew, who do. But anyway, it is a challenging thought, that we shouldn’t always play safe. We must use our imagination and not be afraid if the Spirit seems to be leading us in new directions.

Relief is something we already do get involved in here at St Mary’s. Andrew White’s church, St George’s, gives out food to all the congregation – up to 3,000 people come on a Sunday, I read. We too are getting to be good at looking after the inner man or woman where people are in need, through support for our Foodbank. The Foodbank provided food for 57 people a week ago in the hour and a half when it is open, on a Friday, so there’s need here in this area, for sure: but think what the needs of the refugees are in Mosul or in the mountains of Iraq. So there’s a need for us, if we can, also to give to relief agencies, or indeed direct to St George’s in Baghdad or through Christian Aid.

But most important of all, the need is for prayer. Prayers are answered. The testimony which Andrew White gives from Baghdad is that, in the midst of all the oppression, violence and suffering, he sees prayers answered and even miracles of healing. As well as being a priest, he is a medic, who started out as a hospital doctor, an anaesthetist at St Thomas’s in London, so he is properly sceptical about miraculous healing. Even so, he says it has happened, over and over again, when even the well-equipped clinic, which St George’s runs, can do nothing more for a patient. He says, ‘the clinic sends us patients to pray for and, in turn, we send people who have been prayed for to the clinic to be properly tested – so we can indeed verify that their healing is real and complete’ [op.cit. p.118].

Andrew White says his work needs ‘prayer and money’. I wonder whether we should add to that, ‘raising our voices in support’. The Archbishop of Canterbury is supporting the call, by the Bishop of Leeds among others [http://wp.me/pnmhG-1bW], that our government should relax its immigration policy to allow Christian refugees from Iraq to come to Britain. Perhaps we could think about writing to our MP to support this. Maybe we could even prepare to welcome some refugees here, as we did during the civil war in former Yugoslavia. What do you think?

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.