Archives for posts with tag: vicar of Baghdad

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.

Sermon for Evensong on Bible Sunday at St Mary’s, on 27th October 2013

Luke 4:14-21 – And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is not this Joseph’s son?
And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.
And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.

My younger daughter Alice is a medical student at Cardiff University. She is in her fourth year, and she is now doing clinical training. She’s just finished a stint in a psychiatric hospital. Apparently on her first day, when she met the consultant psychiatrist who would be training her, he introduced himself and then he said what Alice thought was a very strange thing.

He said, ‘You know, as a consultant psychiatrist, I sometimes think that I’m living very dangerously indeed: because nearly every week, I meet the son of God – but I never take any notice! What if I get it wrong some time?’

I feel a bit sympathetic to that consultant. We read stories about Jesus, where he did remarkable things or said remarkable things, which could only really have made sense if he were actually the Son of God. We read about the Pharisees and the scribes getting very angry, disbelieving him, and indeed threatening to do him in: just as they had done here. When he had read the lesson, read the scroll, and then said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’ they didn’t get it. ‘Isn’t this Joseph the carpenter’s son? He’s just an ordinary bloke, from an ordinary background – and here he is, claiming to be divine, to be God, to be the Messiah.’

It’s interesting how the people in the synagogue reacted. If you read on beyond the bit of Luke chapter 4 which I just read, you’ll find that everyone in the synagogue was ‘were filled with wrath,
And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong.’

They threatened to kill him. Quite a difference from the people claiming to be divine in the psychiatric hospital. The worst thing that the people there would say was that they were harmless, mad, not bad. There was certainly no question of getting angry with them.

But for the people in the synagogue hearing Jesus’ words, it was a capital offence. They wanted to rub him out, to annihilate him, by throwing him off the cliff.

That does seem to be a very strange and unwarranted reaction. In today’s language, what’s not to like about the message that Jesus was proclaiming? Good news to the poor: release to the captives: recovery of sight to the blind: freedom for the oppressed: the year of the Lord’s favour, the year of jubilee, when debts are forgiven: why on earth should all that be so hated? Why was the man who said it thought to have done something so awful that he deserved to die for it?

It was a good message, a happy message, a message of benefit and goodwill. How could you possibly be against it? Perhaps an explanation why the Pharisees and scribes were so cross was not that it was to do with what Jesus was saying, but it was all about who he was to say it. You know, ‘Who are you? You’re just Joseph’s son. How can you say things like that?’

When I was about seven, my aunt Pegs came to stay. She was rather a formidable history don from the Institute of Education in Malet Street, so I was a bit wary of her. One morning I was just coming out of my bedroom to go downstairs to breakfast when I bumped into Aunt Pegs, who was also about to go downstairs to breakfast.

She looked over my head into my bedroom and said, ‘I think you ought to make your bed.’ I was outraged. It wasn’t that my bed didn’t need making – it was indeed a piggy mess – but: the problem was that Aunt Pegs was not the right person to tell me. Only Mum or Dad could give me those sort of instructions!

The same sort of thing was in the minds of the people in the synagogue, only to a much higher level. What Jesus was saying could only mean that he was God. He was the Messiah. Only the Messiah, only God, could say the sort of things that he was saying. Only God would have the power to bring about those happy outcomes, of poverty relief, freedom and healing.

It wasn’t that these were bad things. What made the people angry was that Jesus was saying the same things that the psychiatric patients do, but he was in deadly earnest. He was really setting himself up to be the Son of God. And the Jewish leaders were affronted. It was a deathly serious business for them. It couldn’t just be shrugged off as the ramblings of a harmless nutcase.

There was something revolutionary about what Jesus was saying. When the Messiah came, this would indeed be a moment of revolution. But it was outrageous that an ordinary carpenter’s son could claim to have that kind of life-changing power, and what got them angry was that they felt that he was a cheat: that he was in effect making light of something which was absolutely central to their belief. God was so awesome that you couldn’t even speak his name. To impersonate God was something truly dreadful, a terrible blasphemy, and it deserved the death penalty.

I don’t know how I would react if Jesus reappeared today. I don’t know whether I’d get it right: whether I would turn my back on my life and follow Jesus. I’d like to think that I would – but it’s at least possible that I’d be like many of the people around Jesus, who didn’t get it.

But the fact is that around the world today, hundreds of millions of people have got it. They do acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, that we are the beneficiaries of God’s grace.

How come? If some people didn’t get it when Jesus was there in person, how come now so many people do believe now? Worldwide, Christianity is far and away the most successful religion. In China alone, there are a million new Christians each year. There’s great growth in Africa, in South America and in former Soviet Union. So what is it that has brought the good news of Christ so effectively to so many people in the last 2,000 years?

The answer of course is this, is the Bible. Through reading the Bible, through listening to the teachings of the church – indeed, even through listening to sermons – about the Bible’s message, people have come to faith. In the second letter to Timothy chapter 3, we read that all scripture is ‘given by inspiration of God’. There is something in holy scripture which is genuinely revelatory. The Bible is a window on God. It is a hugely varied book, a book of books. As well as straightforward instruction, how to be a good and effective disciple, like St Paul’s letters to Timothy, there is ancient ‘wisdom literature’ like the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, or the Teacher. In the two chapters which Isabelle read for us, describing the venture of faith, ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters’; the life of joy: ‘the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:’ and how important it is to decide to follow a virtuous path: ‘Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come’. Common sense. Folk wisdom. History. And the Gospel, the story of Jesus. All in one book.

So reading our Bibles, and supporting the work of the Bible Society, which we remember on this, Bible Sunday, is important. Translating the Bible, distributing it where it has not been before, printing it in sufficient quantities – all the work that the Bible Society does, is really important.

But today there is a twist. Just as in Jesus’ time, his preaching, his message, did not evoke universal enthusiasm, but also sparked opposition, so today, although the Christian gospel is just as much a message of love as it has ever been, nevertheless there are many places where to be a Christian is to be in a minority, to be oppressed and persecuted for your beliefs.

The reason, just as much as it was in Jesus’ day, is not so much about the message, but about who the messenger is. If you look at the Qur’an, much of its message is very similar to the Bible: but for Moslems, to get that message from anyone except the prophet Mohammed is unacceptable. And if you, as a Christian, stand up and affirm your faith – by having a Bible, or wearing a cross, say – this is an offence, a blasphemy, in some countries.

So today, as well as celebrating the Bible and the work of the Bible Society – and, I hope, sending them something if we can spare it – I commend also to you the Barnabas Fund, the charity which exists specifically to give support to Christians who are oppressed for their beliefs – for example, in Syria, or Northern Nigeria, parts of Pakistan, or Iraq. Think of Canon Andrew White, suffering from MS, but still leading his big congregation in Baghdad, in his flak jacket. These are the sort of people whom the Barnabas Fund supports.

So let us give thanks for the Bible today, for its unique power in spreading the good news of Christ: so let us support the Bible Society. But also especially today let us remember those places where it is actually dangerous to read a Bible, and where to belong to a church might mean you risk being bombed in the middle of the service. That is where Barnabas comes in. They carry on getting the Bibles through, supporting Christians where it is dangerous to be a Christian. Bible Society and Barnabas Fund. Let us support them.