St Bride's: Sermons

Paris

Paris
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In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 "I have no time for religion, I'm afraid.  Do you know, more of the world's troubles are caused by religion than by anything else."

I wonder how many of you have heard that kind of sentiment expressed?  Perhaps because I wear a dog collar, I seem to hear it (or some variation on that theme), with rather tedious regularity.  But if I'm honest, I have always found that particular stance rather puzzling.

Because, when you look closely at those troubles in the world that do have a religious dimension to them, they are seldom caused by religious differences: more often than not they are, first and foremost, to do with politics, or economics, or nationalism, or poverty, or social injustice, or tribal identity, or deep-seated grievances that go back decades (or even centuries) - or some combination of all of those - rather than anything overtly religious.  But when warring sides have differing religious allegiances, that can swiftly become a convenient shortcut by which the opposition can be identified and targeted: think about Northern Ireland during the Troubles; think about the former Yugoslavia. 

It is, of course, undoubtedly the case that when you add to those kinds of volatile situations a shot of deeply-misguided religious fervour, it can all become increasingly dangerous - but the dumping of the entire problem at the door of religious belief alone seems to me to be both profoundly misleading and profoundly unhelpful.

There are, of course, good and bad manifestations of religion, just as there are good and bad manifestations of politics.  Things have been done by the Church and in the name of the Christian faith, both in the present day and throughout history, that leave me both appalled and ashamed - things that seem to bear no relation whatsoever to the Gospel of Christ that is proclaimed in Scripture, and that I experience in my life of faith.  At times during its history, when it has allowed itself to get tangled up in power and politics, the Church has ended up burning heretics and launching Crusades - but that is an utter travesty of the Christian Gospel and everything that Jesus Christ stood for, died for, and rose for.

And a similar point can, of course, be said of Islam.  The shameful atrocities that were committed against unarmed and innocent people in Paris on Friday night were not acts of religious obedience or acts of faith - they were criminal acts of murder and brutality committed by individuals who were both deluded and corrupted - a fact that was echoed by those Moslem voices heard on the radio this morning, who were saying: 'This has nothing to do with Islam'.

As chance would have it, in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus alerts us to the perils of being misled; of being caught up in false kinds of religion, when he says the following:

'Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!" and they will lead many astray." 

Beware that no one leads you astray.  This of course leaves us with the interesting question - how can we distinguish between what is truly of Christ, and what is not?  How can we distinguish between what is truly of God, and what is not?

The first thing to say is that if God is not merely a God of power but also a God of Goodness, and a God of love, and a God of mercy - then it goes without saying that in any faith tradition worthy of the name this will be reflected in the kinds of human being that it produces.  As our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews this morning says:  'Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering ... and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.'  Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.  Any form of religion that does not enhance life rather than diminishing it; that does not promote and manifest healing and hope and goodness and mercy within the world, and nurture compassion in its followers, cannot by definition be of God.  And, of course, the acid test of this is in the detail.  William Blake famously wrote: 'He who would do good must do so in minute particulars: general good is the plea of the scoundrel, the hypocrite and the flatterer.' 

And such true goodness was never more apparent than in the life and ministry of Jesus, who was constantly focused upon the 'minute particulars'.  Because although he spoke to and taught large crowds of people, in fact, the part of Jesus's ministry that really did change lives was what he exercised at the level of the individual human beings whom he encountered - who were not worthy, pious, reputable, or even well-behaved, but precisely the opposite: these were the fishermen, the ordinary working men he called to follow him;  the Roman centurion whose servant was sick; the woman with the issue of blood, who crept up behind him, fearful to be seen touching him; the woman of ill-repute who washed his feet with her tears.  Zacchaeus the hated tax collector, whom he spotted up a tree. Jesus only ever saw the individual human being, the child of God; he was attentive to their stories, and their needs, and their pain, and he turned nobody away.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote a very powerful and insightful reflection arising from his personal experience of 9/11.  As you may remember, he was in New York in a building that was adjacent to the Twin Towers when that terrible event took place.  And I remain very struck by one particular observation that he made: namely, that terrorists see people and situations only from a distance - as an undifferentiated mass of humanity that can be categorized as The Enemy.  Individual lives count for nothing - hence any atrocity committed against them is justified.  In other words, this is the precise opposite to the way in which Jesus saw human beings, in their precious uniqueness.

There is a very chilling, and extraordinarily powerful poem by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Dennis O'Driscoll, which is seen through the eyes of a terrorist who has just planted a bomb in a pub, and has positioned himself a safe distance away to watch what happens. 

You can tell that the bomber is enjoying a sense of power, as he describes the various individuals who enter and leave the pub, all of them oblivious of what is about to happen.  But what actually comes across in the poem is the bomber's callous detachment from his fellow human beings.  It is a terrible, terrible irony that only a human being is capable of being inhuman.

The One Twenty Pub

The bomb is primed to go off at one twenty.

A time-check: one sixteen.

There's still a chance for some to join

the pub's ranks, for others to drop out.

The terrorist watches from across the street.

Distance will shield him

from the impact of what he sees:

 

A woman, turquoise jacket on her shoulder,

enters; a man with sunglasses departs.

Youths in tee-shirts loiter without intent.

 

One seventeen and four seconds.

The scrawny motorcyclist, revving up

to leave, won't believe his luck;

but the tall man steps straight in.

 

One seventeen and forty seconds.

That girl, over there with the walkman

- now the bus has cut her off.

One eighteen exactly.

Was she stupid enough to head inside?

Or wasn't she?  We'll know before long,

when the dead are carried out.

 

It's one nineteen.

Nothing much to report

until a muddled barfly hesitates,

fumbles with his pockets and, like

a blasted fool, stumbles back

at one nineteen and fifty seconds

to retrieve his goddamn cap.

 

One twenty

How time drags when ...

Any moment now.

Not yet.

Yes.

            Yes,

                        There

                                    It  Goes.

Today we hold in our prayers those who were killed and injured and bereaved in the tragic events in Paris on Friday night; we must pray also for all men and women of violence, that the Spirit of God's peace may touch their lives and turn their hearts.  And we must pray for ourselves and for one another, as we 'consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds'.   For God's love does have the power to change the world.  But he has no hands but ours.

Amen.

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