Challenging the hatred

I thought I’d share with you today the sermon that I’ve delivered this morning in Southwark Cathedral.  It says what I would have wanted to say anyway on Living God.  The readings for this Sunday, the 10th after Trinity, are these Isaiah 56.1,6-8; Romans 11.1-2a,29-32; Matthew 15.21-28.

I want to come clean, to be honest with you, I need to make a clean breast of it – I am prejudiced! Ok, I’ve said it! You want to know what I’m prejudiced against? Well, I can’t abide men who wear shorts, sandals and socks. You may not think as well of me now as you once did. ‘How can he harbour such views’, you may wonder? ‘How is that influencing his decision making as a Dean, his ability to stand alongside such a person – shorts, sandals and socks proud – and not make judgements based on his prejudice?’

You’re right to ask those questions. But I have to tell you before you get all self righteous that there are other prejudiced people here as well and that may, that probably, includes you. They tell me that there are people in this Cathedral, for instance, who don’t like cats! You’re not allowed to express those views on the day on which we launch the Doorkins book – but perhaps you secretly hold that hatred. Disgusting! Call yourself a Christian?

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, has gone outside of his comfort zone. He’s in the region of Tyre and Sidon. There are foreigners there, people outside of the tightly defined family, the tightly defined and regulated community that was the people of God, the Jews.

And a woman comes up to him, a Canaanite woman. A woman is bad enough, a foreign woman, a woman from outside the faith community who worshipped other Gods, this was terrible. And Jesus reacts.

Caananite woman

In this picture Jesus can hardly bear to turn round to acknowledge the pleading Canaanite woman

For me, this is one of the most difficult passages in the whole of the four gospels. In it we see Jesus reacting in a way to this poor woman who’s come outside of her comfort zone to plead to a Jew for the healing of her demon possessed daughter. She’s at the end of her tether, seeking the last resort. She’s probably tried everything, everybody else and so she decides – ‘what can I lose, I’ll go to this Jesus who everyone’s talking about – they say he loves everyone – let’s see if he loves me’.

The really shocking thing about this reading is that Jesus is so rude to her. He speaks about her, not too her, as though he can’t bear to address her; he calls her a dog, likens her to an animal that picks up the scraps under the table when other people are feasting – a dog acting like vermin. He’s been brought up listening to the stories of how his ancestors beat up and defeated the Canaanites and he’s bought into it, swallowed the stories and the prejudice. He might love everyone – but he doesn’t love her and he shows it.

The last week has been shocking. At the moment every week seems shocking. If it isn’t sabre rattling of the most dangerous kind between the USA and North Korea, its Brexit and hair-brained schemes which seem to get us no further forward. If it isn’t the scandalous waste of money on the Garden Bridge it’s the horror of terrorist attacks in Cambrils and in Barcelona, a city as diverse as our own, with a market on the Ramblas, where the attack happened, twinned with our own Borough Market.

And trumping it all has been President Trump with his failure to condemn the alt-right, the neo-Nazis, the KKK and their friends in the USA, his failure to condemn the horror of Charlottesville and the killing of a martyr for peace and inclusion, Heather Heyer, and to clearly state, as our own Prime Minister clearly stated, that there is no moral equivalent between the racist, fascist far right and the anti-racist majority. His failure to do the right thing has given a new legitimacy to views and attitudes and prejudice that have no place in any society.

The prophet Isaiah has a vision of what the kingdom of God will be, is like

‘I will gather others … besides those already gathered’.

The God who Isaiah knows is the God of inclusion, whose vision is for one family, gathered around one table, without difference, bound together by their common humanity for, as God says through Isaiah,

‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’.

It’s a beautiful vision, this is what the kingdom is like. So why does Jesus have such a problem with the Canaanite woman?

I don’t think in reality he does but by the way he reacted he perhaps awoke in his disciples and others, who’d travelled with him across the boundaries into a place of discomfort, just how shocking their own attitudes were. Perhaps in reacting like they would, but in a way they never expected he would, he cast a spotlight on the way in which they thought. And for the woman too, who’d have had her own set of prejudices against Jews, she’d have been expecting his first response and only hoping for his second.

And we listening to this Gospel are forced to consider our own prejudices. Because the truth is that we are all prejudiced – it’s part of human nature – but the question is, do we allow those views to run our lives, and dictate our decisions, do we allow those views to define our relationships, do we believe the generalisations about people who are different to us, people of another gender, people of another colour, people of a different sexuality, or age, or economic or social grouping? Have we the guts to confront our own shameful values and deal with them?

At the end of this Eucharist we’ll be commemorating the sinking of the Marchioness twenty-eight years ago today. 51 women and men, most of them young, died that night. As you hear the names read, as you read them for yourselves on the stone, you’ll encounter names from across the world, the names of young men and young women, black and white, gay and straight, people who’d been born here, people who hadn’t, who were having a good time. It was the same with the victims of the terror attack on our community – of the eight who died only one was from this country.

The cry of the racists is ‘give us our country back’ but whose is it? The Christian vision is for an inclusive world in which we’re all equal citizens, free and loved and, as Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, living by the principle that

‘by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy’.

This community has committed itself to this way of living, honest and loving and trying, sometimes well, sometimes successfully, sometimes inadequately, sometimes failing, but always trying to be the reflection and incarnation of the kingdom to which Jesus points, even in that foreign place in which that child is healed.

maya-angelou_t479

The beautiful Maya Angelou

The African-American writer Maya Angelou said

Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.

The God we meet in this Eucharist, the God who provides bread and wine for all people, who shares the divine life with all, is the God of the past, the future and the present who makes nothing inaccessible but everything accessible to all.

To the woman before him Jesus says with divine love

‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

Whoever you are, whoever I am, he says the same, with equal love, to us.

Lord, confront with your love
the hate that lies within me
and cleanse my actions
and my thoughts.
Amen.

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A night of terror

Thank you to all who have been sending such messages of solidarity, hope and care.  Your prayers are so appreciated.  At the moment we don’t know when we will be able to get into the Cathedral.  Until then, on this Day of Pentecost, I am praying this prayer.

Loving God, when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us
in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events,
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.
Amen.

Home grown

We all seem to love a farmers’ market nowadays, the place where we have the chance to buy some really fresh food, to meet the person who grew it, raised the livestock, made the cheese, bottled the milk. That’s one of the reasons that the Borough Market that surrounds Southwark Cathedral and that’s constantly full of people is so popular. That’s also why go to any Church Fete or any sale run by the Women’s Institute or any Mothers’ Union cake stall and you’ll find people queuing up to buy the home-made produce.  It was lovely to read this week, for instance, about the woman from Scotland who has just won the best marmalade award.  It must taste home made at its very best, because it is home made.

BoroughMarket

Home grown in Borough Market

 

But when we are using that phrase ‘home grown’ in relation to terrorism it evokes another reaction completely.

The events of last Wednesday were shocking, just as every terrorist act shocks and sickens us to the core. For those of us who have been around London for a while we’ve experienced a number of such incidents, fortunately few in number, but each one stays imprinted on our memory – the Baltic Exchange, Canary Wharf, 7/7 – we will remember how each of them affected us, even if we weren’t any where near what happened.  The senseless and depraved attack on innocent pedestrians crossing one of the best known bridges in the world – Westminster Bridge – packed with visitors to London trying to get that precious selfie with Big Ben – and then the attack on the very heart of our democracy, the Mother of Parliaments and the murder of PC Keith Palmer, an officer doing his duty on our behalf, has left us all stunned.

Then we learnt that this wasn’t done by someone who’d arrived in this country from elsewhere, not a refugee from some notorious and dangerous country, not an immigrant who’d recently arrived here but someone born and raised not far from London, someone who’d been living in the Garden of England, the real ‘home grown area’, living in Birmingham, a convert to Islam, not a young man, headstrong, but slightly older than we would expect in acts like this.  Like so many of the perpetrators of atrocities in the USA this was a ‘home grown terrorist’.  The question we need to ask ourselves is how are these terrorists grown?

What I do know is that all the travel banns that President Trump and others want to impose, all the suspicion directed towards refugees who others imagine are like Trojan Horses waiting to be rolled into our communities is meaningless.  No travel ban, no ring of steel round a country, no walls built to exclude are effective when we grow people inclined to think the unthinkable and commit acts that are against the standards of basic humanity.

The seedbed for growing people with these attitudes and desires is much more subtle, much more dangerous and much more familiar.  It has to be around the ability we now have to do as I am doing now, sharing my thoughts and putting them out there for the world to read.  And this platform, like any platform, can be used for good or evil.  But regulating it when the very place that the attacker was directing his hatred towards, the Palace of Westminster, stands for, is built on, the concept of free speech that is at the heart, the core of our democratic values, is very difficult.

During these days leading up to Holy Week we will at some stage hear read these words of Jesus from St John

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (John 12.24)

It’s true for the farmer, its true for the martyr, it true in the secular and in the sacred worlds.  In the musical ‘Les Miserables’ the students, manning the barricades, sing a rousing song which includes the lines

Will you give all you can give
So that our banner may advance
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs
Will water the meadows of France!

It picks up on the words of Jesus to us but it also reflects something that must go on in the heads of those who choose to commit horrendous acts of terrifying violence against their neighbours, against, as in this instance, their fellow countrymen.

We are not afraid

I have no answers, only thoughts.  All I do know is that, though shocked, London and Londoners are always defiant.  The slogan ‘We are not afraid’ is a powerful one.  Once we are afraid then those who would terrorise us have won.  And Jesus, the planted seed, bears much fruit in the resurrection and to his startled friends, as he walks across the stormy waters, says

‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ (Matthew 14.27)

We have to say the same to each other.

westminster candle

A candle burns for Westminster in Southwark Cathedral

 

Since the attack a candle has been burning in Southwark Cathedral and this prayer has been offered to people to pray.  please pray it with us.

God of peace,
God of healing,
on all caught up in the incident in Westminster
send both peace and healing.
Give to those who protect us
courage and commitment;
to those who govern us
wisdom and insight;
to those who are afraid
peace and assurance;
and to those who died
life eternal in your presence.
We ask this in the name
of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Requiem for Fr Jacques

This morning, on the day of his funeral, we held a Requiem Mass at Southwark Cathedral for Fr Jacques Hamel. This is what I said in introduction.

Rest in peace and rise in glory

Rest in peace and rise in glory

For over 20 years we have been twinned with the Cathedral in Rouen. At the beginning of the twinning agreement which we recommitted ourselves to on the 20th anniversary of our relationship in 2014 we said

We, members of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen and the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Saviour and Saint Mary Overie, Southwark declare that:
We give thanks as children of the same and only God and Father, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ our Saviour, quickened by the same Holy Spirit.

It is in the spirit of those bonds of faith, friendship and affection and bound to one another in prayer and our common service of God and all our brothers and sisters, that we gather here this morning. This afternoon, in the Cathedral in Rouen the family and friends of Fr Jacques Hamel will gather for his funeral. As the day begins we gather here.

Fr Jacques was a faithful and much loved priest who was simply doing what priests are called to do, stand at the altar and represent the people to God and God to the people and in that very act he was killed. We hardly need to pray for his soul for we are confident that God has gathered him into the divine embrace.

But for ourselves and for our communities and for the people of Rouen and of France and, indeed the people of the world, we must pray. Those who commit terrible acts against others and believe they are serving the purposes of God are wrong. We must not allow ourselves to be terrorised. Christians believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ goodness, love and life are already victorious, for as St Paul says to us ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God’ not even death itself.

So as we gather we remember the love and mercy of our God who never abandons us and we call to mind those times when we have abandoned God.

And so we pray with the community on the day of Fr Jacques’ funeral.

Almighty God,
you bring life out of death,
light out of darkness,
hope out of despair;
as you gather Jacques
in your divine embrace
hold all your people
in your unfailing love;
for the sake of your Son,
our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Amen.

A world gone mad

I arrived home on Friday evening after having seen a production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park only to switch on the news and hear about what was happening in Turkey. A military coup was underway and the BBC News was showing live pictures of people trying to get on to one of the bridges over the Bosphorus only to be faced with the sound of gun fire.  It followed waking up that morning to find out that 84 people had died in the carnage in Nice and that more were critically ill. It followed the dreadful shooting of police officers in Dallas which in turn followed the shooting of African-American citizens by the police in the south of the USA.

What is happening?  How do I make sense of the world?

All of these violent acts were in addition to the upheavals occurring in our own political system; a leadership race becomes a coronation; a leader without support from colleagues refuses to stand down even though challengers emerge; markets are in turmoil one day and then booming the day after.

In the church we spend even more time talking about who is allowed to love who, whilst hundreds and thousands fall out of love with the church.

What is happening? How do I make sense of the world?

beastie-boys-1

The Beastie Boys

 

It feels as though the world has gone mad.  I never thought I’d be quoting lyrics from a song by the Beastie Boys, but life is more than surprising.  In March 2003 in the midst of the Bush-Blair war on terror and on Iraq they sang a protest song called ‘In a world gone mad’ the chorus goes

In a world gone mad it’s hard to think right
So much violence hate and spite
Murder going on all day and night
Due time we fight the non-violent fight.

Watching ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ again after so many years I was struck particularly by the message of non-violent resistance in the face of violence which we found in Jesus.  There, on stage, before Pilate, before Herod, Jesus looks like the victim whilst he is the victor. It was such a powerful image, this bleeding tortured man, crowned with thorns and receiving the 40 lashes minus one.  In the staging of that moment in the passion, instead of whipping him, the cast ran up and threw glitter at him which stuck to his sweating bloodied body.  It sounds weird but it worked fantastically well because the more he was beaten the more glorious he became. It sounds like madness and, of course, when the apostles and the early Christians began witnessing to Christ after his resurrection it sounded like madness.

jcs

I love the episode in the Acts of the Apostles in which Paul is standing before Festus.  As Paul gives his testimony before King Agrippa, Festus cries out

‘You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!’ But Paul said, ‘I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth.’ (Acts 26.24-15)

The only way of responding to the madness is to witness to Christ, and in a non-violent way, to ‘fight the non-violent fight’ to quote those Beastie Boys and to continually proclaim a better way whether that be in domestic politics, the life of the church, of our communities, of our world, a way that witnesses to the God who embraced the cross, defeated death, that the world may live.

Holy God,
when madness abounds
may love witness strong
and your word be heard
above the world’s clamour.
Amen.

My Holy Week – Tuesday

The news from Brussels this morning, the terrible terrorist attacks once more striking in a neighbouring capital city, made it a sobering beginning to the day. Though we live with a constant threat of terrorism it’s still deeply shocking when these events occur. There’s nothing that really prepares you for the pain that these attacks cause – and our prayers are with all those who were caught up in the attacks in Belgium and not least those injured, those who died and those who survived physically unharmed but will be emotionally scarred.

theshandobrussels-04c0-diaporama

I decided to write this blog as a way of reflecting on my own personal journey through Holy Week. I thought it would be interesting for me – and I hope for others – to see what happened and how this, in any way, is illuminated by what we are remembering in these days. When you decide to do some more purposeful, intentional reflection on the day its interesting what connections you begin to make. So it may look a bit contrived to you, but genuinely it isn’t. The thing is that we had arranged, some time ago, that this morning an officer from the Counter Terrorism branch of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) would join us at the meeting of the Senior Management Team to update us on the terrorist threat that we face at the Cathedral.

The specific reason for wanting to do this was to help the Chapter make the decision as to whether or not we should take out specific Terrorism Insurance. This would cost us half as much again as our usual insurance costs us – so an extra £20k. So before we said yes, or no, we wanted help with assessing the risk.

The presentation was really helpful but especially as we gathered, ourselves and the members of the MPS, knowing about what was happening in Belgium, not so far away. It was a sobering beginning and made it even more real. At the end of the presentation we were shown a short video that has been produced to help people understand what to do in a terrorist attack. You can watch it on YouTube – it’s called ‘Stay Safe’ and promotes a three stage response – ‘Run Hide Tell’ It’s very simple and was powerfully portrayed in the short film. We’re going to make sure that the volunteer groups who help us look after what goes on io the Cathedral, the Stewards, the Welcomers and others – benefit from this presentation.

Those words though – ‘Run Hide Tell’ – took me by surprise to part of the passion narrative and became even more powerful for me. What I was suddenly reminded of was that little detail in St Mark’s Gospel

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (Mark 14.51-52)

I love the little details that you get in the Gospels, events, people, that you could almost skim over but which have significance. The events in the Garden of Gethsemane, of which this is part, are so monumental, so terrifying that a nameless onlooker escaping could be overlooked. But it is there, he is there, not to be ignored.

The flight of the young man by Correggio

The flight of the young man by Correggio

There was terror all around in that garden as the soldiers and the priests arrived out of the shadows and Judas stepped forward and planted the kiss on the cheek of Jesus which would give him away. In an instant what had been a place of peaceful prayer became the place of terror and Jesus was in the middle of it. Swords were out, an ear cut off, Jesus was grabbed as though he were a terrorist himself, brutally treated and it was all witnessed from the sidelines by a young man.

The tradition is that this was Mark, the evangelist, the one who mentions the event, the only one who mentions the event, in his gospel. Perhaps he was the only would who would know. His presence and departure were lost in the dark and confusion except to him. And it was the officer from the Counter Terrorist branch who shed light on what happened.

As the writer of the book Ecclesiastes so rightly says ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1.9). The young man’s reaction is the one we are being taught to adopt. In that moment of terror he ran, he needed to save himself. Like so many of the disciples, he hid, perhaps with them in the Upper Room, waiting for the safe time to emerge. Then he told, he spread the Good News as an evangelist, told his story alongside the Jesus story. Run, hide, tell.

The horror and terror of the Garden of Gethsemane is being replicated in so many places – and Jesus is there in the streets of Brussels as he was there in the garden on a hillside, as he will be, as he is, in our own place of terror.

Lord Jesus,
enfold in your love
those who face terror today
for you faced terror then
and defeated it
by your cross.
Amen.

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