Archives for posts with tag: nationality

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 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 12th November 2017 at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon

Judges 7:2-22; John 15:9-17 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=377554049

This morning we held our Remembrance Day Services. Godfrey, in his sermon, said that, when he had first been ordained, in the 1970s, people had not expected remembrance services to carry on being held after the year 2000. There would be no-one still alive who had served in either of the World Wars. So the memory, the ‘remembrance’, would just be an impersonal one, a collective celebration of something we had learned about from history. It would be like our celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation, or Guy Fawkes Night, perhaps.

But as Godfrey pointed out, since the end of WW2, there has been only one year during which members of the British armed forces have not been engaged in conflict, somewhere in the world. So there is still a reason to be thankful for their bravery, to remember them, and to pray that, through our bringing to mind their sacrifice, we will gradually and finally turn away from war and strife.

Now in this evening service, as we turn towards the ending of this day of remembrance, I want to reflect on some of the many things that challenge us – or which, I suggest, ought to challenge us, as we enter the 100th year after the promise was made that the First World War was the ‘war to end all wars’. Because, 99 years later, very sadly, that still isn’t true. Wars haven’t ended.

So I want to reflect, to look carefully at some of the things we have said and done in relation to war, and see if perhaps we can discern any factors which might help towards bringing peace in future. You may not agree that I am asking the right questions: but I hope that what I say may start you thinking critically and, I hope, constructively. I very much doubt whether there are any automatically right answers here, at least so far as mortal men and women are concerned, but I think we ought to try.

Love one another. On Remembrance Sunday. Lest we forget. And, to pick up both our lessons tonight, you don’t need a big army to win a battle against overwhelming odds, if God is on your side.

How to make sense of all this. This morning we stood in silence by the war memorial and tried to commemorate all those who, in one sense, had not loved one another. They had killed each other. We honoured those who fell. We do honour, usually, those who fell fighting, fighting for our side. We don’t usually pray for the people who were the enemy, although there have been good exceptions, like the prayers at the service in Westminster Abbey after the Falklands War, for example, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury insisted that there should be prayers for the Argentines too.

After all, Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,’ (Matt. 5:44). But we – and mankind generally – never have. Indeed, we love to rake up, in a rather triumphal way, the history of the First and Second World Wars. We thank our ancestors for being brave and standing up against the enemy – Germany in both cases – and keeping us independent.


The enemy’ wasn’t just Germany, in fact: it also included Turkey, Japan, Austria, and Italy as well, at various times. Most of those countries have been friends and allies for far longer than they were enemies in one or other of the World Wars. The same countries, at different times, have been both allies and enemies.

It’s difficult to generalise about countries, whether they are always going to be friends or foes. But what we can say about most wars is, that in most cases, it wasn’t personal. Even in the terrible trench warfare of WW1, people weren’t fighting people whom they knew, and whom they’d fallen out with.

That should perhaps be something we could think about, when we’re tempted to think of the Germans as baddies, or someone makes a joke about them not having a sense of humour or wanting to extend their territory round a swimming pool on holiday. People were not fighting people they hated personally, but fighting for ideas, or for their country’s sovereignty. Our soldiers fought because our leaders thought that otherwise, we would be overrun by Germany – sovereignty; and, in WW2, to avoid being turned into Nazis, a question of ideas. Remember the Christmas Day truce in 1914, when the soldiers got out of their trenches and played football, exchanged cigarettes and gifts. They had nothing personal against each other.

Again, I think that, as we reflect on the sad fact that no amount of ‘Remembrance’ has stopped wars from breaking out, we might try to identify some of the ideas which seem to have led to war. Sovereignty, for instance: not wanting someone else, foreigners, to dictate our laws. But think about this. A pooling, a watering down, of sovereignty, to some extent, in the European Union, has brought about the longest ever unbroken period of peace in Europe. And every treaty between countries, for any purpose, involves the parties giving up a little of their individual autonomy in order to agree together.

And allied to that, perhaps we should reflect on what it is that makes us British, or French, or Chinese, or whatever nationality we are. In the majority of cases, it is an accident of birth. There is no special distinction, it confers no special entitlement by itself, just to be born. You certainly might say that the miracle of life itself, of being brought to birth, is itself hugely valuable. But whether you’re born in poverty in a Calcutta slum or in a mansion on St George’s Hill, that fact of itself doesn’t entitle you to do better or worse than another human being.

We are all children of God, equally. So aggressively putting up barriers to keep people out of ‘our’ country – and I’ve put the word ‘our’ in inverted commas, because although people use that expression, ‘our’ country, I’m not sure what it really should mean – aggressively keeping others out may not be a good, or a right, thing to do. But millions of people have died, effectively to uphold that principle.

We sense that there must be some reasonable limit, some reasonable extent of nationalism. In WW2, we would not have wanted our government to be in Berlin, or to have had to speak German instead of being able to speak English, (loudly if necessary, if people don’t understand us), to everyone we meet, wherever we happen to be. So where is the right balance?

The bravery and sacrifices made in the World Wars kept us free, and we are thankful. But if today the same instincts for independence result in our driving out from our midst people who have come to live and work here, and who provide such valuable contributions to our health service, to our farmers, in our hotels and restaurants and so on, if those people feel we no longer welcome them and accept them, this is not the ‘love’ that Jesus was talking about. It was αγάπη [agape], brotherly love, charity and kindness that he meant.

‘Greater love hath no man .. Jesus’ next sentence in St John’s Gospel, after the great command that we should love one another, is ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ As Canon Giles Fraser pointed out on the radio on Friday, some war memorials don’t say ‘lay down his life for his friends’, but ‘for his country’ instead. But really, the context in the Bible is, of course, that Jesus is looking forward to his own death, to the crucifixion. ‘As I have loved you, so you must love each other.’

That is a sacrificial kind of love. Making sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice, for someone you love. There are all those stories of heroism and sacrifice in war.

Jack Cornwell, the under-age naval hero who stayed at his post during the Battle of Jutland, severely wounded himself, even though everyone around him had been killed or wounded, quietly waiting for orders.

My own relative, Dr John Fisher, who won the MC at Arnhem as a medic, by going into a minefield to treat wounded soldiers, laying a tape behind him so that the stretcher bearers could safely get through the minefield to the casualties and bring them to safety. Every step could have been his last, if he had trodden on a mine. But he was willing to risk death, in order to save others. He survived, fortunately.

Or other heroes, who weren’t soldiers. ‘Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz, on August 14, 1941. When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted’. [ http://auschwitz.dk/kolbe.htm]

We should try always to remember them, and to be grateful for their sacrifice. And as well, we should realise that Jesus wasn’t just talking about supreme, life and death, sacrifices. Love means giving things up for your friends, small sacrifices as well as big ones.

And what about Gideon, and his battle against the Midianites? Why did he go through this bizarre process of whittling his army down to 300 champions only, instead of the thousands he had at his disposal? God didn’t want the Israelites to be so powerful that they could boast that their own strength had brought them victory. To show the power of God, they had to be seen to win against impossible odds.

But the puzzling thing is the thought that, as so often in war, it is said that both sides are praying to God, to the same God, that their side will prevail. Will God support one side against the other? And if so, why? It is a version of the theological conundrum called ‘theodicy’ (θεοδικη), the question why a good God would allow bad things to happen. The answer in this story from the Old Testament is that God favours his chosen people, the people who worship him rather than any other, false gods.

There is also the story of the Roman emperor Constantine at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in the fourth century, who had a dream about Jesus Christ and decided to paint his soldiers’ shields with a symbol of the cross. They won the battle, and Constantine, in gratitude, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire – which was a major factor in making Christianity spread throughout the world.

But – but there’s something uneasy about this rather crude, almost superstitious approach to God. Having God as a kind of nuclear weapon, the ultimate ‘game changer’, seems wrong. Granted that we believe that God cares for us, knows all of our names, and so on: but why would He almost justify a war, by determining its outcome? Or to put it another way, why would the good God become involved in the evil that is warfare? The hymn says, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’ Not, ‘Whose side is the Lord on?’

Enough for one Sunday evening, I think. Lest we forget. Let us love one another, as Jesus has loved us.