Archives for posts with tag: sacrifice

FFC51CEC-7413-42F0-BAE5-6E554435EB6DSermon for Evensong on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

(Exodus 2:23-3:10;) Hebrews 13:1-15

‘NEVER CEASE TO LOVE your fellow-Christians. Remember to show hospitality. There are some who, by so doing, have entertained angels without knowing it.

Remember those in prison as if you were there with them; and those who are being maltreated, for you like them are still in the world’. [Hebrews 13:1-2, NEB]

As well as the lovely angel reference, this is good advice for Christians about how to live a good life. Jesus’ two great commandments were to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. It is that second commandment that our lesson from Hebrews is all about. Do as you would be done by, sometimes referred to as the Golden Rule. It’s so familiar that nobody would really challenge it as a recipe for a peaceful and harmonious life. But I think it’s worth just pausing to look at it in more detail.

The examples in Hebrews are encouraging us to put ourselves in the shoes of various other people. People in prison and people who are being maltreated in one way or another: what does it feel like? What does it feel like to be in prison?

Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, in the context of learning how to do the right or the good thing in life, isn’t just an exercise in sympathy or empathy – you know, ‘I feel your pain’. Saying that, after all, doesn’t really mean anything, because you can’t feel another person’s pain.

Never mind pain. You can’t actually perceive exactly what that other person perceives, either. When I was younger, my mother had a Mini, which, because it was the swinging 60s, was a very fetching shade of pale yellow. It was called ‘Fiesta Yellow’ by the manufacturers. But an awful lot of our friends thought that the car was light green. One person’s Fiesta Yellow is another person’s light green. I have a picture of the car on my phone if you want to inspect it afterwards and see which colour you think it is.

You can’t feel another person’s pain, but you can certainly imagine what it would feel like to have something or other done to you. You know that you would not want to be hurt; and what Jesus is saying is that therefore you should not want to hurt anyone else. And, following St Francis of Assisi, you might extend that principle to all God’s creatures. Do as you would be done by. What if you were a cow? How do you feel about roast beef?

We rapidly stumble across the same sort of issues that we encounter in the context of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5]. Jesus seems to be putting forward counsels of perfection, things which you can’t actually carry out perfectly in practice.

It raises issues with the Ten Commandments (which, after all, are all summed up in the two great commandments.) ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example. So we have all the elaborate legal and philosophical theory which has created the concept of the ‘just war’, effectively putting two moral principles against each other and making one take precedence over the other. The idea is that in certain circumstances justice may be served by making war where there is no alternative, for example where a country has to act in self-defence. In the ‘just war’ theory, the principle of upholding justice between nations, international law, is regarded as more important than ‘Thou shalt not kill’.

Jesus, however, did not talk about ‘just wars’. He did talk about loving your neighbour ‘as yourself’, and therefore not wanting to harm your neighbour, without any ifs or buts; without any exceptions.

This idea of sympathy, feeling with somebody, which is what the word literally means, clearly has paradoxical implications. You can’t get inside somebody else’s head. We are all separate individuals: except, perhaps, if you are Jesus himself. We say that Jesus took upon himself the burden of our sin. He suffered for us.

It is relatively straightforward for us to be able to say this, but really difficult to know what it really means. You might say that it is really a sacred mystery. Jesus entered into our world, our personality, our souls. And, according to some theologians, he took upon himself the burden of our sin and suffered for us. But again, it is difficult to make literal sense of that. What is the sin that Jesus took upon himself? Sin is usually defined as whatever it is that separates you from God, so it seems odd that Jesus, who was God, could take upon himself things which were anti-God.

There are, of course, examples from history of people making heroic sacrifices in order to save other people. We have just, in the church’s calendar, remembered a brave Polish priest, Maximilian Kolbe, who died in the Second World War in Auschwitz. The Nazis were executing people in the camp, in reprisal for a breakout attempt, and they had selected 10 prisoners at random. Father Maximilian volunteered to take the place of one of the prisoners selected. He had heard the prisoner crying out that he would never see his wife and family again. That’s why father Maximilian stepped forward and said he would take his place, so that now he would be able to see his family again. The Reverend Father’s sacrifice saved the family. But it’s not clear that what Jesus did, by suffering on the cross, actually falls into this category.

Perhaps it was more a way of his demonstrating the ultimate expression of loving one’s neighbour as one’s self. Jesus knew that people are crucified, symbolically and actually. People suffer, and he entered into their suffering; he endured the same kind of suffering. He was like a leader who leads from the front. There is nothing that he asks his army to do that he won’t himself do. It means that Jesus, God, is in us, is with us, alongside us at every step of our life.

The God with us gives us a challenge – the Christian challenge. Do we really try to handle others as we ourselves would like to be handled: to give to them, to take away from them, to build them up, or to do things that hurt them; do we do that, always thinking at the same time what it would feel like if it was happening to us?

That’s today’s message. It’s deceptively simple, but it is absolutely revolutionary for our lives. So let us give it more than a second thought. Think about what your neighbour will feel if I do what I do to him – or her.

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Sermon for Evensong on Palm Sunday, 13th April 2014
Isaiah 5:1-7, Matt. 21:33-46 – Three sad stories

There were three sad stories that I read in the paper this week.

The first was about the way in which some of the changes in the government benefits system are affecting people who are disabled or who have long-term chronic illnesses. The Disability Living Allowance is being abolished, and a new Personal Independence Payment is being brought in. The trouble is that, in many instances – one recent study said it is affecting up to 40% of cases – people who used to get the Disability Living Allowance (this is people who have terminal illnesses, for example, where there is no realistic prospect that they can go back to work) are now being assessed as ‘fit to work’ and have to wait for an appeal before they can get any money. This can take months. In addition, apparently, a lot of people have been approved to get the new payment, but it still doesn’t come, because things are ‘lost in the system’.

Macmillan Cancer Care have been reported as saying that cancer patients are even missing appointments for chemotherapy because they don’t have the money for a bus fare.

Another sad story concerned an 18-year-old schoolgirl, Yashika, who has been deported by the Home Office as a failed asylum seeker, weeks before she was due to take her A Levels. The bit which really distressed me was this, which I read in the Church Times:

The Home Office .. [took] this vulnerable girl away from her family … [and placed her] alone, in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, for six weeks during December and January (including Christmas and New Year), and again for two weeks in March.

… Three times, she was put through the ordeal of suddenly being informed that she would be deported imminently. On the first occasion she was driven to Gatwick in a van, only to be turned around at the last minute and returned to the detention centre.

On the second, she was informed at the eleventh hour that the decision had been reversed – both confusing and distressing events in themselves. On the third instance, escorted by five guards, she was placed on a flight from Heathrow, seated in an isolated position in the plane, and flown to a country where, as far as our authorities were concerned, there was no-one to meet her.’
[Rev. Steve Chalke in ‘Church Times’, 11th April 2014]

The third story – just to get all the ghastliness over in one go – was the story of the trainee solicitor (I’m ashamed to say) who left her dog to starve to death, locked up in her flat.

There are lots of things which we can say about all these cases: there are lots of things wrong with each one of them. They’re all horrifying. But I just want to pick out a couple of things which I think are relevant on Palm Sunday.

The point that struck me about the welfare changes affecting sick and disabled people, and what struck me about what happened to the schoolgirl Yashika, was that somebody, somewhere, was actually being cruel face-to-face – face-to-face with the poor disabled people or with that terrified young girl. There were five guards on the plane. There are the people at the Dept for Work and Pensions who receive the phone calls or open the letters chasing up unpaid benefits, and who fail to respond.

There’s a government minister involved. The author in the newspaper said she had tackled him, on the Andrew Marr Show. She said, ‘He waved it away airily’. ‘Oh, it’ll all be sorted by the autumn’, he claimed. Or again, ‘He batted away the idea with a shrug.’

Nothing illegal going on here. Nothing illegal in deporting the schoolgirl Yashika. Nothing illegal in denying benefits or paying benefits late. Due process of law has been gone through.

What seems to be lacking is any kind of compassion. Jesus’ second commandment, the ‘golden rule’, ‘Do unto others: love you neighbour as yourself’, doesn’t seem to be evident in either of the first two cases.

So far as the poor dog was concerned, there was of course law-breaking, and the cruel person has gone to jail for it. But the essence of what she did was the same – lack of compassion, lack of fellow-feeling. She didn’t even vaguely put herself into the shoes of the dog, if I can put it like that. She didn’t think what the dog would have felt as he starved to death. She didn’t – she refused to – feel his pain.

The same with the Home Office people who organised the deportation of Yashika. They weren’t there as she was chucked off the plane in Mauritius, a place that her family had fled from in the first place, because they believed that they were threatened. These Home Office people apparently couldn’t care less that this 18-year-old girl – just like one of us’ daughters – had been forcibly separated from her family, and was being dumped in a hostile country with no-one to help her or care for her. This was being done in our name: but what kind of compassion is it?

The same with the government minister: not his job, the nuts and bolts of putting his excellent plans, his policy, into effect. Not his job that his policy means that civil servants are instructed, as part of their job, to deny the means of livelihood to sick and disabled people.

Well, maybe you excuse the minister. What about the people on the ground? Surely they know that they are making people starve? All over the country, people who’ve been denied benefit are turning up in our food banks.

So what about Palm Sunday?

‘There is a green hill far away
Without a city wall
Where the dear Lord was crucified …’

It was another inhumanity. Jesus the king, riding on his donkey, wasn’t going to triumph: he was going to die. He was going to die horribly. And there were people who were going to do it to him: soldiers and the whole apparatus of the Jewish state-within-a-state, and of course Pontius Pilate and his Roman administration.

It wasn’t just an administration or a system, it was people. It was people who actually hurt Jesus, who did the unspeakable things to him which we will be reading about and thinking about in the next week.

Jesus’ death was not just a spectacular injustice. There was due process. The Pharisees and the Sadducees passed a death sentence on Jesus as a dangerous trouble-maker – translation – freedom-fighter, terrorist. He threatened the good order of the Jewish administration. So although we would say that the whole business of Jesus’ crucifixion was totally unjust, we should note that it was procedurally correct, according to their lights at the time.

Jesus was ‘the stone which the builders rejected’. That rejection, that crucifixion, that God-killing, was the worst thing that mankind has ever done. Far worse than the cruelties and injustices which we see around us happening every day. That poor dog. That poor girl. The cancer patient without the bus fare to get to their chemo session.
But in a sense, these cruelties and injustices which we see today are related to Jesus. He showed us how to live. He showed us how not to be cruel. In a sense, if those things are still happening, in a real sense, He is still being rejected: he is still being crucified.

Why is there so little love and compassion? Why does the minister just shrug when people starve? Why does no-one say, ‘It’s cruel, it’s wrong, to take a girl away from her parents and surround her with five guards on a plane’. They are all just like the soldiers who beat Jesus, who nailed Jesus to the cross.

But remember, even men under orders can see the light. Remember what the Roman centurion said. ‘Truly this man was the son of God!’ Then God raised Jesus from the dead – after the ultimate humiliation, the ultimate affirmation. ‘The stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner’ – the cornerstone.

We say that Jesus ‘saves’. This isn’t a cue for a weak joke making an unflattering comparison between the Lord and, say, Petr Cech at Chelsea. We say that Jesus made ‘a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.’ Does this mean that we don’t need to care about our cruelties and inhumanities, because in some way Jesus has ‘paid the price’ on our behalf?

I think not. What sort of God would that be? I certainly don’t believe that God is in the business of human sacrifice. How could He be a God of love, if He really was prepared to hurt His own son? Indeed, if we are proper believers in the Holy Trinity, we could put it another way. In that Jesus was God, was God in human form, how could God hurt Himself?

Instead, I think that God’s sacrifice, Jesus’ Passion, was a sacrifice in the sense that Jesus entered into the depths of our suffering. He experienced the worst that we can do to each other. But it didn’t destroy him.

If we repent,
if we stop our cruelty and inhumanity,
if we have faith in Him, we also will not be destroyed.
If … If …