Thursday, August 20, 2015

VJ Day Sermon 2015

Sermon on the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of VJ Day - August 16th 2015

War is, without doubt, the most destructive force on our planet.  Forget earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanoes.  Their destructive power – though often immense for a few hours – pales into insignificance against the destructive power of war.  The destruction of cities, the millions of victims of any world-wide conflict, the destruction of whole economies and entire races of human beings – these are just some of the effects of war.

Nuclear war cranks up the destructive potential to an even greater height.  It was Albert Einstein, reflecting on the pure destructive potential of the weapon he helped to create who said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”  He understood that a worldwide nuclear war had the potential to push the human race back into the Stone Age.

And yet, War is an inevitable and, it seems, ever-present aspect of human nature.  So, what can we learn from the wars of the past (let alone the wars of today)?   On this 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan, perhaps it is worth a look at the causes of that particular conflict.

Between 1928 and 1932, Japan faced domestic crisis.  The Great Depression which affected the whole world also affected Japan.  There were spiralling prices, economic collapse, unemployment, falling exports and social unrest.  In November 1930, the Prime Minister of Japan was shot by an ultra-nationalist.  In 1932, the army tried to assassinate the next Prime Minister, and ultimately the military seized control of the country.  Between 1932 and 1936, admirals ruled Japan.  Confident and arrogant, they believed that the whole of Asia should be ruled by them – as a way out of economic collapse.  China was invaded, and in response, in 1941, the United States announced a punitive oil embargo.  For the Japanese leaders, that move was a perfect pretext for war, unleashed in December 1941 with the Pearl Harbour attack.

The rest, as they say, is history – including the history that some here today, like Bill Marshall and Govan Easton lived through in all its horror.  But it is the history behind the history from which we need to learn.  The conditions which prompted the rise of the Japanese military machine are similar to those that led to the rise of Hitler, half a world away.  Market forces in crisis, spiralling debt, unemployment and poverty – however caused.  It is when economies go bad that people look to extremist leaders for solutions.

That is, of course, precisely why so many people in the Middle East are following the mad mullahs of ISIL today.  Have you seen how they live?  Have you seen the poverty of shanty towns, unemployment on a massive scale, lives shackled by debt owed to Western banks and institutions?  People who are downtrodden by debt and poverty look for someone to blame.  It is not hard for their leaders to point the finger at us, with all our stored up wealth.  All that ISIL then has to do is remind their followers that many Americans and British people are Christians – and a war about economics quickly becomes a war about faith.  People will blow themselves up for a belief.  They will fly into skyscrapers for the promise of heaven.

War is what happens when language fails, and when we focus our angst, our fears, our problems on some other easily identified group.  For the Nazis, it was the Jews.  For the Japanese, it was the ‘evil Americans’ and their allies.  Today, for billions of people throughout the world, the West is perceived as ‘the great Satan’.  To those who live in abject poverty, shanty towns and starvation, we who live in relative comfort with our bank accounts and shares are seen as the problem.  Our apparent refusal to share our wealth, our insistence on closed borders, our pre-occupation with pleasure-seeking, these are all hated by the rest of the world in their misery and poverty.

Of course, our own perspective is entirely different.   Today, we give thanks for 70 years of peace in our own land.  For us at home, life has been peaceful.  We have been able to go about quietly building our society, largely without the fear of doodle-bugs or other bombs dropping onto us.

But in fact, such peace at home is largely an illusion.  British Troops have been involved in wars all over the planet – since 1945.  Many of you will remember such wars – many of you have even fought in them.  Greece, Malaya, Korea, Egypt, Kenya, Cyprus, Indonesia, Dhofar, Aden, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Lebanon, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Libya, and now ISIL.

To imagine that the Second World War was the last Great War is to be naive in the extreme.  There has never been a ‘war to end all wars’.  And there never will be – for as long as human beings choose violence over talking, self-preservation over sharing, hatred of the ‘other’ over love of neighbour.

But there is another way.  Writing around 2,700 years ago, the Hebrew prophet Micah dreamed of a day when all the peoples of the earth would ‘learn the ways of God’.  “He will teach us his ways”, said Micah, “so that we will walk in his paths”.  “He will settle the disputes between peoples, and they will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.  Everyone will sit in peace under their own vine, and no-one will make them afraid”.

This peace will only come about when the peoples of the earth finally accept the rule and governorship of God.  Such peace will only come about when the people of the earth begin to take seriously what God meant when he told us to love our neighbours as ourselves – a message repeated again and again through the Hebrew Scriptures, and taken up with vigour by Jesus of Nazareth.  Only when we stop keeping the best stuff for ourselves, being content to watch our neighbours in other lands starve and die, will the world ever find the peace for which we all yearn.

If we will let him, the Lord will indeed be our Shepherd.  If we will follow his ways, he will indeed lead us beside still waters.  Our cups will indeed overflow.

But how will this be achieved?  There is no other way but the way of changing one person at a time.  To quote Mahatma Ghandi, ‘if you change yourself, you will change your world’.

So today, we give thanks for the 70 years of relative peace we have enjoyed here in Britain.  We remember, once again, those who gave their lives – or who were forced to give up their lives – for our peace. Today we especially pay tribute to those who endured the horror of the Death Railway and the Far East prisons. We remember, too, the innocent children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – those who never raised a weapon against any one of us.  We remember them, and all those who have sacrificed themselves, or who were sacrificed, in the vast number of conflicts ever since.

But let us not simply remember them.  Let us honour their sacrifice with a sacrifice of our own.  Let us, each one, commit ourselves to living differently from today.  Let us put aside the lure of wealth, and the pettiness of nationality, and realise that we are all, each one, children of the same God.  Let us learn from him, and follow his ways…so that perhaps, one day, such commemorations as this will no longer be necessary.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Passion of the Christ

A Short Homily on the day of the Performance of the Havant Passion Play

Reading:  John 6.51-58

I wonder how many of you saw yesterday’s production of the Havant Passion, in the park.  If you missed it, there is another opportunity this afternoon at 3pm.

I also wonder how many of you have dared to sit through Mel Gibson’s 2007 film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’.  Gibson went to great lengths to make his telling of the Passion as authentic as possible (at least as far as he could tell).  The result, I have to warn you, is rather shocking.  Hollywood must have got through a lot of bottles of tomato ketchup in the making of that film!

The challenge of the Passion Story is of course to get a mental grip on what the suffering and death of Jesus really meant.  Jesus’ death has held a variety of powerful meanings for Christians – and in theological circles, it remains a topic of hot debate.  Here are just three of the main focuses for that debate…

Sacrifice for Sin:  Many Christians believe that human wrong-doing (sin) makes it impossible to be with God (the source of all purity and love).  Such sin can, however, be wiped away through the payment of a death penalty.  By dying in our place Jesus ‘paid the price’ and opened the way for us to be forgiven and restored as children of God.  This, many believe, is how Jesus ‘saves’ us from ourselves, our human folly, and even from Hell.

Redemption: Some Christians believe that our sins effectively make us slaves of the Devil or Satan (though others use the Devil only as a metaphor for sin).  Through his death, Jesus ‘redeemed’ us (like redeeming a hostage from a kidnapper) by paying the Devil a ‘redemption’ in the form of his own blood.  “O Perfect redemption, the purchase of God…”

The Great Example:  Jesus was willing to be executed by the violent forces of power and  influence of his day (the Roman authorities, and the religious leaders).  He did this, many believe, to demonstrate powerfully what happens when violent power, bad politics and human greed are allowed to control society.  The weak and defenceless are left to die, and God gets pushed out to the margins of society.

Christians have debated these (and other, still deeper) interpretations for centuries. New meanings of ‘The Cross’ are always waiting to be discovered.  It fascinates me, however, that Jesus himself said very little about the actual meaning of his death.  Nowhere in the Gospels does is he recorded as giving the kind of clear theological and intellectual meaning that we humans crave.  According to the Gospels, Jesus talked about his blood as ‘poured out for the sins of many’ (which points to the idea of sacrifice) and as the ‘wine of the new covenant’ (which implies that his blood is the seal of a new contract between humans and God).  But Jesus doesn’t get any more specific than that.  “Do this,” he says, “in memory of me – as often as you eat it”.

So, in Jesus’ words, as with so much of his teaching, there are quite deliberate layers upon layers of meaning.  As we see in today’s Gospel, those who heard him speak were just as perplexed.  ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ asked the Jews…clearly failing to understand the way that Jesus spoke in metaphors.

I have personally struggled with the meaning of Jesus’ passion for many years.  I’ve read hundreds of different theologians’ take on it.  I could lecture you for hours on the deeper possible layers of meaning that his passionate act of Sacrifice has for so many different people!  But I won’t.  There isn’t time today!

Instead, let me offer you this thought.  Following Jesus is not so much about precisely what you believe, but about how you follow Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus didn’t tell his followers exactly what to believe about his flesh that they were supposed to eat, or his blood that they were supposed to drink.  Rather, he simply says ‘eat’ and ‘drink’.  It’s a little bit like a parent who says to their child…”do as I say.  Don’t ask why.  Just do it!”.

Following Jesus is an act of faith, not an act of belief.  We can choose to believe all sorts of theological theories about Jesus.  But at the end of the day, Jesus calls out ‘Follow Me’.  Have faith in me. Live as I call you to live.  Live openly & generously.  Give freely, and you will receive.  Give up your life, and you will have life.  Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.  That’s the key, that’s the heart of it.

Don’t get hung up on the theological niceties…but rather, as the old hymn says:  Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.