Monday, May 18, 2015

The World Hates Us. (John 17.14)

I want to take as my text today just one line from the rather complicated Gospel reading we have just had.  I wish I had time to unpack all of the reading…but you probably wouldn’t thank me for that! 

Here’ the line that particularly grabbed me:  “…the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” John 17.14

Who do you think are the most persecuted people in the world?  Is it the Rohingya people, currently stranded at sea because they have fled Myanmar – formally Burma?  Could it be the Yasidis who were chased up a mountain in Iraq by ISIS last year?  Could it be the Palastinians who have been corralled and bombed behind the security walls of Israel?  Well, no.  As terrible as the circumstances of all these groups is, 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.  That’s according to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular group with members in 38 states worldwide. (Source:  The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that 100,000 Christians now die every year because of their faith.  That’s 11 Christians every hour.

That’s a bit difficult for us to understand, here in Western Europe, isn’t it?  As inheritors of the faith of the Roman Empire, we are used to thinking of Christianity as the culturally dominant force of our society.  Last week, I attended the Mayor-making, where the whole event was started by the saying of the Lord’s Prayer, led by the Mayor’s chaplain.  The week before, the past Mayor was here in church, with members of the British Legion, local councillors and our new MP, all to commemorate VE Day with hymns and prayers.  For us, Christianity is part of the warp and weft of our lives.  We might ignore it, we might choose not to participate in it, but it’s always there.

Yet the plain fact is that in other nations, Christians are locked up in jails for blasphemy.  In countries like Nigeria, churches are routinely bombed while worshippers are at prayer.  Egypt has recently seen its worse Christian-focused violence in seven centuries.  In Iraq, the Vicar of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, has been told by the Archbishop of Canterbury not to return, because it is just too dangerous.

Can you and I imagine what that is like?  Can you picture what it would be like to have a bomb explode, right now, while we are at worship?  Can you grasp the fact that in the hour that we are at worship this morning, 11 Christians elsewhere in the world will die for their faith.  Lord, have mercy.

Why does the world hate us so much?  The easy answer would be to blame the rise of militant Islam (which is undoubtedly the main contributor to much of today’s violence towards us).  But that would be to miss the point.  Christians have always been hated.  We were hated by the Romans. We were hated by the French revolutionaries.  We were hated by Soviet Union and the Chinese Communists.  Along with our spiritual cousins, the Jews, we were hated by the Nazis. 

No, its not just the militant Islamists.  Everybody hates us.  Today there is a new brand of Christian-haters out there.  They are the militant atheists, like Richard Dawkins, who set out to persuade the nation that believing in God is foolish – like believing in fairies at the bottom of the Garden.    They claim that all religion (and Christianity in particular) is responsible for all sorts of great evils – from the Crusades to the tensions in the Middle East today.  Such narratives are powerful.  They are stories easily told to the gullible and the uneducated.  They are easily lapped-up by those who forget – or who have never been taught – that they only reasonable way to judge a religion is by the teachings of its founder.  Let me say that again:  the only reasonable way to judge a religion is by the teachings of its founder. 

It is people, politics, power-plays and profit that starts wars.  Religious wars are a perversion of religion.  Nothing more, nothing less. 

So why does the world hate us so much?  I want to suggest to you that it is for one basic reason.  Christianity stands in total opposition to the way in which the world goes about its business.  The teachings of Jesus cannot be read in any other way than as being in total opposition to the whole way in which human society is structured. 

Mary, the mother of Jesus knew this from the moment of his conception:  ”He will put down the mighty from their seat, and exalt the humble and meek”.  Jesus re-iterated this:  “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven”.  Jesus spoke up for the powerless, and against the powerful  Jesus stood in total opposition to the kind of world which we simply accept today.  He told stories of rich men who gathered their wealth into barns and big houses, only to find that they could not take it with them.  To the rich man, up a tree, who wanted to watch the world go by from his lofty vantage point, Jesus said “Come down Zaccheus – today we’ll have a party at your house”.  According to Jesus, it is not the wealthy, the powerful, and the war-mongers who will be blessed when his Kingdom is established – it will be the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, and the pure in heart.   

Jesus calls his followers to choose not to belong to this world of power-politics, the accumulation of wealth, and an obsession with celebrity.  We, who own the name of Christ-ian ‘do not belong to the world, just as our Master does not belong to the world’.   Jesus calls us to a simplicity of living, to a focus on God,  and to the right use of power to raise up the lowly and down-trodden.    Could it be that this is why Christians are so hated.  Because we stand in opposition to all that the world holds dear?

“The world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world”

That’s effectively the end of my sermon, for this morning.  But I need to tell you something else.  I hope you’ll therefore forgive me if I take a little longer than normal.  You see, I want to tell you what happened yesterday.

Yesterday morning, about 30 people from this community all came together in one magnificent project.  There were members of this church, like Mary, and Barbara and Graham and Richard and Penny and David and Paula and Mike and Sandra and Clare and Malcolm who rolled up their sleeves along with members of other groups who we serve through our halls round in the Pallant.  Together, they emptied those halls of years of accumulated junk.  We filled two skips, and about four van-loads of rubbish.  We re-stocked the Charity Shop for the next few weeks with all our junk.  We grunted and strained and cleared the garden behind church house. 

But more than that, we, the church in this place, brought people together in community.  We had members from Dynamo and the Havant Orchestra.  We had members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous.  We had actors from Cloak and Dagger, and practictioners of Yoga – all working together for one common aim – to begin the process of transforming our Halls in the Pallant into a thriving centre for the community of Havant.

Our Mission Development Plan, which you’ve got a summary of in your hand, is all about building a different kind of world.  It’s a world in which worship and serious discipleship come top of the list.  It’s a world in which we seek to nurture the young – not set them to work in sweat-shops.  It’s a world in which we take our responsibility for the environment seriously – and a world in which we act as good stewards of the buildings we have inherited. 

This is not the world of the rich and powerful.  This is not the world in which we build palaces for wealthy people to live in splendid isolation – but a world in which we build palaces for the people – there in the Pallant. (The word 'Pallant' means 'Palace' by the way).  This is not a world which is content for children to be starved and sick and abused, but in which children are nurtured and given space to grow.  This is not a world in which the environment is raped for human entertainment, but in which the world we have been given is regarded as precious and fragile.

Ours is a world which will not be recognised by many people.  We should not be surprised when people tell us that sacrificing our resources for the good of the community is ‘not wise use of money’.  We will not be surprised when people tell us it would make more sense to knock down our halls, and sell the land for profit.   We will not be surprised when people tell us that solar panels are ugly, and that it makes more sense to keep on burning fossil fuels.  We will not be surprised when people tell us that gathering for worship on a Sunday is pointless, and that we’d be far happier going shopping like everyone outside these walls today. 

Today, we are launching our Big Build Campaign.  What we are doing is completely counter-cultural.  Today, we are saying ‘yes’ to community, and to working together for the good of all.  Today, I inviting every one of you to say ‘yes’ to following Jesus Christ into a different kind of world. 

Your PCC, together with our new Parish Development Officer, Dave, have been working hard to give shape to our Big Build Campaign.  A Campaign Committee has been formed, chaired by our Treasurer, Shelley.  Over a number of meetings, they have come up with a list of special events that we would like to put on over the coming couple of years – events that will both draw the community together, and raise funds to help us meet the goals of our Mission Development Plan.  There are tons of possible events…there are suggestions for dances, and concerts, for grand draws and sponsored events.  There are events we could run with other local organisations, and Special events like putting on a Victorian Christmas, or summer garden parties.

The Big Build Committee has divided up these events into five focus areas – and therefore five teams of people to deliver them.  Are you someone who loves putting on concerts?  There’s a concert team for you.  Do you like to boogie, or cha-cha-cha – there’s a Dance Events Team for you to sign up for.  Do you have good links with other organisations in our town, like the Spring Arts Centre, Dynamo, or other churches – then perhaps the ‘Co-hosted Events’ would be the best for you.  Do you have a flair for putting on big all-day events – then join the Special Events Team.  Or are you the kind of person who can doggedly continue, week after week, to enthuse people about a project – selling draw tickets, or encouraging people to buy a roof tile?  Then there is an ‘ongoing events’ team for you.

All we ask today, is that you express an interest in getting involved.  Shelley is going to be waiting to hear from you, at the end of our service.  She has a sign up-sheet, on which she’d like to get your name and contact details – and then over the coming weeks we’ll be in touch about getting each of these teams up and running and getting on with the task of building our community.

We choose to do this because we want to be different from the world around us.  The world may hate us for our optimism – our belief that the world can be a better place, that community matters.  But the world hates positive people.  The world does everything it can to bring them down.  We will not give in.  We have a mission.  We have a plan.  We are going to follow our Master.  


Friday, May 8, 2015

VE Day 70th Anniversary - Address

Address for VE Day Service – 8th May 2015

I am too young to have experienced VE Day the first time round – as you will no doubt have worked out from my youthful appearance!  But I’ve seen the news-reels.  I caught a documentary on the BBC this week, which had recollections of VE Day from a wide variety of famous people.  There were lots of famous faces – everyone from Michael Parkinson and David Attenborough to Bruce Forsyth were there…with Ester Rantzen and even Jilly Copper thrown in for good measure.

However, what fascinated me most were the clips of film from that day – clips of people holding street parties; and clips of the great surges of people moving through London and settling down in Trafalgar Square to listen to Winston Churchill proclaim the surrender of the Nazis.

I was particularly struck by all the dancing in the street that took place – and by the fact that on that day there were not enough men to go around.  Women were often seen dancing with women, as indeed they had often had to do throughout the war.  Men were still away – not yet demobbed.  Many men, of course, had not survived at all.  Many men, and quite a few women, would never experience the joy of VE Day.  They had given their lives so that others could have this moment, and a long peace thereafter.

The overwhelming emotion of that day was, it seems, optimism.  A great evil had been defeated (as David said in the words of introduction to this service just now).  There was every reason to hope and suppose that things would get better from now on.  At that moment, no-one knew that rationing would continue until 1954 – nine more years. Few people had even heard of the Falklands, or Vietnam, or Korea.  No-one foresaw that the Cold War would come galloping over the horizon, with all its menace and fear.  Certainly no-one saw that the Middle East would become the powder-keg that it has become today.  No, on this day, 70 years ago, the streets were filled with optimism.

There was optimism at moments of Biblical history too.  Just now we heard the prophet Micah proclaim that a time would come when strong nations will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.  A time would come, said Micah, when nation would no longer lift up sword against nation, neither would they learn war anymore.  Micah foresaw a time of pastoral bliss, when people would sit quietly and peacefully under their own vines and fig trees…no doubt wearing a nice straw hat!

But what were the circumstances that would lead to such peace?  What is it that Micah optimistically believed would bring about such a wonderful state of affairs?  For Micah, and for all the biblical prophets, days of peace will only come when God’s children – that’s you and me – have learned God’s ways and walked in God’s path.

The Bible is, among many things, a record of mankind’s quest to find out the ways of God.  But then time and again it is also a record of how we human beings seem to believe that we know better than God.  The Bible is filled with wisdom – wisdom which few people know, and even fewer people actually read.  And yet, God continues to call to us, through its pages, that the ways to peace are available…if only we would listen.

I learned a startling statistic recently.  I don’t know exactly how true it is – but it feels about right when you think about it.  Here it is:  since the days when Jesus walked on the earth, and taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves, there have been only seven years when some kind war was not taking place in the known world.  Seven out of 2,000 years.

That startling statistic should teach us something.   It should teach us that we need to listen harder, more intently to what God has told us about how we should live.

God’s rules are pretty simple.  They were boiled down by Jesus to just two over-riding and fundamentally simple rules:  love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.

Intriguingly,  Jesus isn’t the only religious teacher to have said this.  It’s a common teaching, running across all religions.  So much so that a variant of – that Jesus also used - it is known as ‘The Golden Rule’.  There’s a story I like about an old Jewish Rabbi, from around the same time as Jesus, who was once challenged to stand on one leg and recite the whole law of the Hebrew Bible.  Rabbi Hillel took up the challenge, stood on one leg, and said this:  “Love God, and don’t do anything to anyone that you wouldn’t like them to do to you.  All the rest is just commentary”

Let me ask you to try and capture some of the optimism of that first VE Day today.  Let me invite you to think what the world would be like if human beings actually lived by the Golden Rule.  This world about which I dream would be a world in which all disease would have been cured centuries ago – because money that has been spent on weapons for 2000 years would have been spent on medical research.  This world would be one in which everyone has enough to live on, and a fig tree or vine to sit under in a nice straw hat – because the resources of the world would be shared.  This world would be one in which nations no longer existed, because neighbours don’t divide themselves into nations.  This world would be one in which terrorism and extremism like that of the Nazis simply had no place….because the conditions which create such extremism would not exist.

Of course, I know that I am being utopian.  I know that you will tell me that I am an idle dreamer.  And until such a vision comes to pass, we need our troops, we need our weapons, and we need to protect what is ours from those who would forcibly take it away from us.  You would probably be right.  But I still want to hold on to optimism.  I can almost taste the optimism of those first VE Day crowds.  I want to bathe in that optimism, and keep crying out that the world really could be that good!  If only we would listen to God.

So today, let us celebrate the ending of the war in Europe, and the relative peace we have enjoyed for the last 70 years.  Let us give thanks for those who gave their lives for that peace.  Let us remember the joy of VE Day and the optimism of all those crowds.  But let us also re-commit ourselves to the task of loving God, and loving our neighbour every day.

A long journey begins with a single step.  Each day that someone lays aside hatred, selfishness and greed, and chooses to embrace every other human being as a brother or sister is one more step along Micah’s road…the road to the beating of swords into ploughshares.