Saturday, October 21, 2023

What to do about Palestine?

I have, so far, rather avoided commenting on the Israeli / Palestinian conflict.  This is partly out of a concern that more or less anything I say is likely to cause offence to someone.  It’s also out of the sense of powerlessness that many of us feel about the situation.  After all, what can you or I, in here Havant, do to affect the outcome of such a major international problem?  But today’s Gospel reading, with its reference to the occupation of Palestine (as the Romans knew it), really doesn’t give me the chance of avoiding comment.  So, I plan to offer you, this morning, a bare-bones history of the land of Palestine, which also now includes the legally-constituted State of Israel.  It might feel a little bit like a lecture – but I hope you will find it helpful and useful.

But first, a personal story…35 years ago, at the tender age of 22, I had the honour to sing in Jerusalem.  It was the 40th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel – and I sang at the performance of an oratorio called ‘Hear, O Israel’, by Irish composer, Cormac O-Duffy, who was an old college chum of mine.  The concert took place in an open-air amphitheatre belonging to the University of Jerusalem, with a back-drop of the Jordan Valley.  It was attended by the then Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzak Shamir. It was accompanied by a mixed choir of Christians and Jews, and led by the Israel Symphony Orchestra.  It’s something I hope I’ll never forget!

A few months later, we repeated the concert in Westminster Central Hall, for the benefit of London-based Christians and Jews.  And there is a recording of that!  So here I am, looking young and gorgeous, singing the song of Theodore Herzl.  Herzl was the leader of the Zionist Movement – and he predicted in 1897, at a Zionist Conference, that within 50 years, a State of Israel would be formed in Palestine – and he turned out to be correct.  There’s a lot to think about, but first, let me play you this clip: 

Theodore Herzl undoubtedly didn’t sing in such a rock and roll style!  But he was the most prominent leader of the Zionist movement of the late 19th century. It is important to understand the roots of Zionism.  First of all – the name.  Zionism refers to Mount Zion – a large hill just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, but a name also synonymous with the Temple Mount.  Zionism is therefore essentially about the Jewish people regaining political control of Mount Zion, and the land around it.

But before we get too deep into modern Zionism, let’s take a brief tour of ancient history.  Around 1000 BC the Hebrews (as they were then known) had conquered the land of Palestine by force, taking it from the tribes such as the Canaanites, and the Philistines (from which the word Palestine originates).  According to the ancient Scriptures, God had promised this land to Abraham, and so the descendants of Abraham through Isaac believed they had the God-given right to claim it, through force if necessary.  The trouble is that Abraham had three lines of descendants, through three different women. The Jews were descended from Abraham’s wife Sarah, through Isaac.  But Abraham had two other lines of descendents, through Hagar (Sarah’s concubine) and Keturah (who Abraham married after Sarah’s death).  The peoples of the region trace their line back through Hagar and Keturah and therefore also claim God’s promise to Abraham for themselves.

Unfortunately for both Jews and Palestinians, the land lay in a strategic corridor between Africa and the Middle East – it was a narrow part of the so-called fertile crescent – a swathe of land, amid a lot of desert, in which food can be grown.  And so, throughout history, everyone fancied a piece of it – from the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Babylonians (Iraqis), the Persians (Iranians), the Macedonians, and then the Romans.  Palestine had only actually been one unified Jewish State for about 80 years, from the time of King David, a thousand years before Christ up until the Exile around 500 years later.  As this set of key dates shows, Israel split into two kingdoms about 80 years after David – and both kingdoms were then subsequently conquered.  Various overlords then had control of Palestine, right up to the time of Jesus.

The Romans finally gained control a few decades before Jesus came on the scene.  But even their fragile control came to an end within about a hundred and fifty years.  Notably in the year 70AD, the Temple in Jerusalem was razed to the ground, during one particularly bloody uprising of Jewish nationalists. Without their Temple, the Jews became scattered all around the world, into what is known as the diaspora.  

After the Roman occupation, with the Jews now scattered, Jerusalem and Palestine continued to change hands – it remained an important and valuable property – overflowing with milk and honey (as the Scriptures say).  Palestine was controlled by various political entities, including the Church, through the Crusader armies of the West, and of course the Ottoman Empire, who were largely in control for about 400 years, up until the end of the First World War, when Britain invaded and expelled the Ottoman Empire.  Between the first and second world wars, Britain was in charge, under a mandate from the League of Nations.  The mandate was intended to lead the native population to self-government and independence.  

But, under the influence of the growing Zionist movement who had gained a strong foothold in world politics, the Mandate was also committed to providing for a Jewish Homeland.  Another influence was a strain of mainly American Christianity which believed that the legal establishment of a state of Israel was a necessary pre-cursor to the return of Jesus.  But creating a new state of Israel was at significant variance with desire of the native Arabs of Palestine, who feared displacement.  After a turbulent period of conflict during the 1940s, the State of Israel was formally established in 1948.  Around 500 Palestinian towns were forcibly absorbed into the new State, and something close to a million Palestinians were pushed out into Gaza and the West Bank – an area to the East of Jerusalem, but on the West Bank of the River Jordan.

And the rest, as they say, is modern history.  The State of Israel insists – not unreasonably - on its legal right to self-governance and security, not least because of the Holocaust and many other past injustices.  That view is reinforced by those religious Jews who draw on Scripture for the promise made to Abraham.  Some Israelis, supported by their Government, are systematically occupying Palestinian land to strengthen their claim.  Palestinians, who are mainly Muslim but also containing a significant minority of Christians, state – not unreasonably - that they were there first – as Philistines and Canaanites before Kind David’s military success, as well as being also legitimate descendants of Abraham.  They – rather naturally - perceive the Jews as invaders, both historically through King David, and in modern times under the British Mandate.  These are therefore deeply rooted enmities – coloured by the fact that over the last 3,000 years, many other nations have also had administrative control of the land of Palestine. History matters, you see – it shapes ideas and attitudes that are still being played out in Palestine and Israel today.

I now regret my 22 year old decision to sing about the founding of Israel, at its 40th anniversary, and by appearing to take such an uncritical view about the founding of Israel.  I was ignorant of the real history of the land at that time – except for the fact that I knew something of the horror of the Holocaust, and I was glad that Jews now had a place of relative safety and security.  What I hadn’t realised is the significant claim of the Palestinian people on the land which has borne their name for most of the last 3,000 years.  

The question that confronts each of us today, is what to do with that complicated, highly-contested history.  How shall we respond to the horror of Hamas terrorism, and the resultant Israeli rage?  How can we play our part in establishing justice, mercy and peace for all the inhabitants of the land called Holy?

Truthfully, there is not much we can do – except that through our relative wealth, we can bless those agencies who work on the front-line of caring for everyone affected by the political and historical forces at play.  In Jesus’ words, we can render to Caesar through the honest payment of our own taxes. And we can render to God through our gifts to agencies like the Red Cross and the Anglican Church in Jerusalem (provider of the Gazan hospital that was bombed this week) who work impartially for the good of all.   We can also play our part in voting for those British politicians who demonstrate the fairest and most just understanding of all the complex forces in play.  And of course we can pray – for justice and peace: for a Kingdom of righteousness to be established on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.    

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Henry Martyn - a short but astounding life

Texts: Isaiah 55.6–11 & Mark 16.15–end

Do you ever wonder what on earth you can do, personally, about the troubles in the world?  I know I do.  I’m an anxious consumer of news.  I listen to the Today programme every day.  I can’t have my lunch without the 1 o’clock news, and I check the headlines again when I go to bed!

The recent news of events in Palestine and Israel has drawn the world’s attention away from the horror of Russian’s attempted conquest of the Ukraine.  Largely unnoticed has also gone the recent earthquake in Afghanistan, and other natural disasters.  A man shot three people in Brussels this week – but the event barely got a mention.  The world is going to hell in a handcart, but you and I are largely powerless to do anything about it.  Aren’t we?

That could have been the attitude of Henry Martyn, who the Anglican church commemorates today as one of our outstanding Christians.  Born in Truro in 1781, Henry Martyn went up to Cambridge at the age of sixteen. He became an avowed evangelical and his friendship with Charles Simeon led to his interest in missionary work. In 1805, he left for Calcutta as a chaplain to the East India Company. The expectation was that he would minister to the British expatriate community, not to the indigenous peoples.  But, in fact, he found that there was a constant fear of insurrection among the ex-pat community.  They lived, somewhat as Israelis live today, under constant fear of violent uprising by those whose lands had been taken over.  Even the recitation of Magnificat at Evensong was forbidden, lest ‘putting down the mighty from their seat’ should incite the natives.

Henry’s response to this situation was notable.  He could have kept his head down, and quietly carried on ministering to his ex-patriate community.  But, instead, Henry – being a gifted scholar - set about learning the local languages so that he could share the Gospel with them, following Jesus command at The Great Commission.  One assumes that his motivation was a belief that converting the natives of India to Christianity would be a means of bringing the British and the Indians into a new fellowship with each other. 

Having learned their tongues, Henry then supervised the translation of the New Testament first into Hindustani and then into Persian and Arabic, as well as preaching and teaching in mission schools.  Many of those schools, and also some hospitals, were built out of his own funds.   He went to Persia to continue the work, where his translation of the New Testament was warmly welcomed by the enlightened Shah.  But, unfortunately suffering from tuberculosis, he died in the Turkish mountains, in modern day Armenia, on this day in 1812 – having only spent seven years in his task of translating the Scriptures.

In just seven years of his missionary life, Henry Martyn succeeded in spreading the Gospel among millions of people.  He was a famous and noted preacher, who engaged in public debate with scholars from other religions, and who gained their respect.  This was at a time when tensions between religions were rather less than they are today…a time when religious leaders didn’t claim, by and large, to have the monopoly on truth. 

What, I wonder, does Henry Martyn’s life have to say to us today?  Few of us, I suspect, have the intellectual skills to become bible translators…I know I don’t.  The world today is a far more fractured place than it was for Henry – and missionary work is no longer carried out (in the main) by British people going out to convert people of other nations.  Much has changed.  And Henry had some very particular skills and opportunities. 

Nevertheless, his short but brightly lit life teaches us that even in seven years, a great deal can be achieved, by those who have the faith and the courage to serve.  Henry’s life, of course, mirrors the life of Jesus who, as far as we can tell, only had a ministry of three years, and yet managed to set in motion a world-changing movement.

So the question that Henry Martyn leaves for each of us to ponder is this:  in the life that each of us has left (whether we have years or just months ahead of us) how are we going to be salt and light to the world in which we are placed?  Henry Martyn sought to make his corners of the world into a better place, by the light, the teaching and the example of Christ.  He brought the Gospel to those who hadn’t heard Jesus’ teaching of love.  He provided schools and hospitals for thousands.  He worked to break down barriers between religions and national identities.  

How are you and I going to do the same and perhaps even more, in the time that each of us has left on earth?  You and I are not likely to be able to do very much about the global conflicts currently shaking our world – except perhaps to direct our charity towards those who are suffering.  Henry Martin tackled the issues before him in Calcutta.  How are you and I going to bring the good news of Jesus’ life, teaching and example, to the people of Havant, Bedhampton, Emsworth and Hayling?  They are our mission field.  And it is first of all to them that we are called.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Wilfred, Elizabeth and Edith...

Today, the church marks the death of three prominent Christians, Wilfred of Ripon, Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell.  As you know, I quite like using these Thursday sermons to learn something about those who have believed before us.  So with three famous names in our view, let’s hear their stories.

Wilfrid, or Wilfrith, was born in Northumbria in about the year 633. He was educated at the monastery of Lindisfarne, but disapproved of what he judged to be their Celtic insularity. Remember that at this time, the Celtic church had been thriving in the years since Rome retreated from the British Aisles.  But from 597, when Augustine of Canterbury was sent on a mission from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great, Rome had been steadily re-asserting its influence.

Wilfred’s sympathies lay with Rome.  He believed that Rome was the mother church, even though she had left her daughter-church in the British Isles to it’s own devices for a couple of centuries.  Wilfred journeyed to Canterbury and then to Rome. He spent three years at Lyons where he was admitted as a monk. He then was appointed Abbot of Ripon and took with him the Roman monastic system and Benedictine Rule, which he immediately introduced. 

Wilfred played an influential role at the Synod of Whitby, in around 663.  The Synod was called, essentially to decide whether the Anglo-Saxon church of Northumbria would follow Celtic or Roman church traditions.  Wilfred’s dominance of the debate was largely responsible for the victory of the Roman party over the Celts.  Later, when he was elected Bishop of York, he went to Compi├Ęgne to be consecrated by twelve Frankish bishops rather than risk any doubt of schism by being ordained by Celtic bishops. 

There were upsets first with Chad and then with Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, but the Roman authorities took his side and he was eventually restored to his See. After further disputes, he resigned the See of York and became Bishop of Hexham, spending his remaining years at Ripon. His gift to the English church was to make it more clearly a part of the Church universal.  But it has to be said, his manner and methods were not such as to draw people close to him at a personal level. He died on this day in the year 709 and was buried in Ripon.

I find this period of British church history really interesting.  It shows that spark of independence from other nations which still dogs the British mindset today.  We are an island nation, and we don’t take kindly to being told what to do by other nations in Europe.  We never have done.  Henry the Eighth’s split with Rome was another example, and of course Brexit is the latest occasion when we have pulled up the drawbridge to Europe.

Wilfred also serves as a reminder that even the Church Universal, with its headquarters in Rome, has rarely managed to maintain a unified stance on anything.  The British Schism of the 600s, the Reformation, and the Great Schism with the Orthodox church at the turn of the first millennium – all these historical events remind us that unanimity on all matters theological and ecclesiological is a rare thing indeed.  The Catholic Cardinals are currently having another Synod, in Rome – and there are many issues up for debate there, too.

In the last week or so, the Bishops of the Church of England have voted to approve prayers which may be used at the blessing of same sex marriages.  This is a major shift in policy by the church, and it is warmly welcomed by so-called progressive and liberal clergy, like me.  On the other hand, those of a more conservative view are incensed by this move.  Many are calling the present House of Bishops a bunch of ungodly heretics!  The battle over same-sex blessings, and perhaps one day marriages, is but the latest ‘big issue’ to get in the way of Unity – and dire predictions of schism in the Church of England are rife once again.  In the past we’ve argued over where Authority lies, slavery, the rights of women, the ordination of women, and the authority of Scripture.  And no doubt we’ll find things to argue about in the future – just as Wilfred and others did in the past.  But through all these debates, the godly men and women of the past have continued to witness to God’s love in the world – whatever the theologians and bishops were arguing about!

I’m thinking, for example, of Elizabeth Fry. She was born at Earlham in Norfolk in 1780. At the age of twenty, she married Joseph Fry, a London merchant and a strict Quaker. She was admitted as a minister in the Society of Friends and became a noted preacher. The appalling state of the prisons came to her notice and she devoted much of her time to the welfare of female prisoners in Newgate. In 1820 she took part in the formation of a night shelter for the homeless in London. She travelled all over Europe in the cause of prison reform. She was a woman of a strong Christian and evangelistic impulse and this inspired all her work. She died on this day in 1845.

For another example of someone whose faith drove them on to great works, today we also remember Edith Cavell. was born into a clergy family at Swardeston, also in Norfolk, in 1865. After life as a governess, she trained as a nurse, ending up working with the Red Cross in Belgium in 1907. On the outbreak of the First World War, she became involved in caring for the wounded on both sides. She refused repatriation and then began smuggling British soldiers from Belgium into Holland. In 1915 she was arrested and brought to trial. Protecting those who worked with her, she was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad on this day in the year 1915. She went to her death calmly, forgiving her executioners, convinced she had been doing her duty as a Christian. 

A quick comparison of the lives of St Wilfred, Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell leads one to conclude that although Wifred is the only canonised Saint, of the three, he was perhaps the least ‘saintly’ of them.  By all accounts he was a miserable and argumentative so-and-so, who nobody really liked, and who spent most of his life arguing about which branch of the church was the most authentic.  In comparison, Fry and Cavell poured out their lives in the service of others – caring for the prisoner, the homeless and the sick.  I wonder which of these three each of us would rather emulate?  In the spirit of today’s Gospel reading, I wonder whose dogged persistence we would most like to copy?

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Patronal Festival Sermon

A sermon on the Patronal Festival, commemorating St Faith of Agen (our 'patron saint).  Texts: 1 Kings 8.22-30 & Matthew 21.12-16

There are many so called holy places in the world.  They are those places where, somehow, the veil between our mortal world and the spiritual world seems more fragile.  Some people call then ‘touching places’, or ‘thin places’ – places, that is, where one seems to be able to reach out and almost touch the out-stretched hand of God.

According to the Hebrew scriptures (or the Old Testament as Christians call it), Bethel was one such place.  After his prophetic dream, Jacob called the place ‘House of God’ (which is what Beth-el means.  (El was one of the early names for God).  For many generations, it was one of Israel’s holiest shrines.  The Ark of the Covenant was kept there, until it was transferred to Jerusalem.  Prophets and leaders would go to Bethel, to seek God’s wisdom and instruction. Ironically, though, for such a holy place, no-one can say with certainty today where Bethel actually was.  History and time did their work, and now that holiest of places is gone – just like so many abbeys and great churches in our own land.  Buildings are temporary – no matter how much they are loved.  God is immortal, and God’s immortal spirit lives in us, not in these stones and tiles.

We humans have a fondness for place, don’t we – and especially for ‘thin places’.  Stonehenge still attracts millions of pilgrims, even though they have no idea what actual ceremonies were practices there.  The modern-day druids who gather there at the Solstice are really only making educated guesses about what their ancestors did there.   For devotees of our patron Saint, Faith of Agen, the abbey-church of Conques, France is another such place.  There, the bones of the young martyr are laid – cruelly murdered under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian, because she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus Christ.  Ask Bishop John and Janet Hind for their account of the place – for they visited it only a few years ago.

In this morning’s reading from the book of Kings, we note that King Solomon himself, at the grand opening of the first Temple acknowledged that God didn’t live in the building.  “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” he asks.  “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”.  Rather, Solomon prays that God’s eyes may be open night and day towards the Temple.  He essentially asks God to make the Temple a ‘thin place’, a ‘touching place’ where God may especially hear the prayers of his people.

Where is your ‘thin place’?  Where is that you find that the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is somehow made thinner?  For some, it may be a beautiful natural landscape.  For others, it will often be a building, in which hundreds of years of prayer and worship have somehow soaked into the stones.  Perhaps this is your thin place.  Or maybe it’s St Albans, for those who live and work in West Leigh.  Perhaps these are the places where God feels especially present – to which God’s eyes are open, day and night.  No doubt Jesus felt the same about the Temple in Jerusalem – which is why he was so incensed by the way it was being used to cheat and defraud pilgrims.  The crooks were charging extortionate prices for pilgrims to convert Roman money into Jewish coin (the only tender that the Jewish authorities would accept).  They were also selling doves at inflated prices for sacrifices.

In fact, as Jesus found, holy buildings can sometimes get in the way, and they can certainly be abused by unscrupulous men.  In Jerusalem, despite Solomon’s prayer, human priests created a holy of holies – a place in which God was said to actually dwell.  It was a place so holy, that the High Priest could only go into it on one day of the year, after elaborate rites of purification.  The New Testament tells us that the curtain of that ‘holy of holies’ was torn down at the death of Jesus.  It was not a helpful picture of God.  It had to go.  Now (as the book of Revelation has it), God’s dwelling place was with people – not locked up in a back corner of a temple. In fact, you and I are now where God dwells…not in buildings of stone, but in living flesh and blood.

Even our own beautiful building has some challenges – it’s High Altar can make God appear distant and aloof.  It’s stained glass windows of a decidedly romantic, English-looking Jesus are not particularly helpful either.  But, as we shall sing in our Offertory Hymn, here are symbols to remind us of our lifelong need of God, and of God’s grace.  As Fred Pratt Green’s words go on: “Here are table, font and pulpit, here the cross has central place.  Here in honesty of preaching (I love that line!) here in silence as in speech, here in newness and renewal, God the Spirit comes to each.

Those who steward and care-for this church throughout the week will testify, the building has immense value to all those who enter its doors throughout the week, seeking solace, peace, or a place to seek God.  That is why, for all its theological confusion, I think that our continuing efforts to refurbish this place are worthwhile.    Its very age and architectural idiosyncrasies are precisely what draw in those seekers of a thin place, a touching place.

But at the same time, we must not forget that this building is not ‘the Church’.  It is only a shell…at the end of the day, a shelter from the rain in which the actual church can gather.  Fundamentally it is no different from the church of St Nicholas in the parish of Nswam, Ghana – which I visited in 2015.  A few palm branches, spread over a bamboo frame.  Just a shelter from the elements.

For, as St Peter says, we are “living stones…built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”.  We are the church – not these stones.  We could – if the Diocese would let us! – tear this whole place down.  That would not mean that the church was gone.  The people who make up the church would still be here (if a little damp, when it rains!).  The church is the holy house of spiritual people, with heaven in their hearts, and the needs of the world on their mind. People with so much faith, that they too, if ever called upon, might also demonstrate the certainty of purpose and belief of our own patron, St Faith. Amen.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

The Politics of Jesus

Texts: Nehemiah 8.1–12 and Luke 10.1-12

Picture the scene.  The leaders of the people have returned from Exile in Babylon, led by their new Governor, Nehemiah.  For the 70 years that the leaders have been away, the ordinary people have gone about their lives, under the watchful and influential eyes of the Babylonians.  Three or four generations have come and gone.  The people have become disconnected from their past, and from the Law of Moses which their ancestors knew.  They have intermarried with other tribes.  They have taken on Babylonian ways and laws.  No doubt, many have started to worship Babylonian gods as well.  

But now, the leaders are back.  Nehemiah, the Governor is there.  And so are the Levites – the religious leaders, and their High Priest Ezra.  They are all scrubbed and polished and standing on a great platform in front of the crowd.  And they have brought with them the five books of the Law – the Torah.   These books are precious relics.  They tell the story of the first Jews, of Abraham, and Moses and Judah (from whom the Jews for their name).  They also contain the very laws of God, which Moses brought down from the mountain during the long march to freedom.  These books have been edited and polished by the Scribes, during the Exile.  Toiling away during the dark nights in Babylon, they have argued and debated which stories to include, and which to leave out.  They have blended different and sometimes competing narratives into one seemless story, which also contains all that the leaders wanted their newly formed people in Jerusalem to hear.  

Ezra, the High Priest, stands up before the people.  This is his big moment.  Like Rishi Sunak at the Conservative Party conference, this is Ezra’s chance to put his stamp on the future.  If he gets this right – he will re-ignite the almost lost Jewish faith, for centuries to come.  He will give back to the people their common story, and their laws for living well as the chosen people of God.  How will the people receive this message – a message which pulls at their ancestral roots, reminds them of their national identity, and puts the former leaders back in power?

Thankfully, for Nehemiah and Ezra, the exercise succeeds.  So much so that when the people hear the laws of Moses being read to them, and interpreted by the Levites, they break into tears.  The account in Nehemiah’s book doesn’t tell us why they cried.  Perhaps it was from joy, at hearing their national story being told to them again.  Perhaps it was for sorrow, for all the ways that they had, often unknowingly, broken the laws of Moses?  Perhaps it was for terror, that their law-breaking would bring God’s wrath down on them again?

The laws of Moses were political laws – they set systems of justice and redress in motion, they legislated for how complaints would be settled, how foreigners and strangers would be received, how land and possessions should be shared – all subject to the heavenly rule that Jesus called ‘the Kingdom of God’.  Jesus sent his followers, 70 of them according to Luke, out into the villages and towns, to declare the advance of the Kingdom – a Kingdom which contained all the holy principles of the Law of Moses, but with a new emphasis on issues such as loving God and neighbour, caring for the poor, forgiving the sinner, refusing to use violence to settle scores.  There was a huge amount of political commentary in Jesus’ teaching, just as there was in Moses’ laws.

People react differently to political speeches, don’t they?  The crowd who heard Nehemiah and Ezra’s passionate, well-prepared speech began to weep, perhaps for sorrow at the political system and spiritual culture they had lost.  For the people who heard from Jesus’ canvassers – those 70 disciples sent out with his message – there was a range of reactions.  Some welcomed the canvassers warmly.  Some hated their message, no doubt because it threatened some aspect of the way they lived.  Those people drove Jesus’ canvassers out of their towns, so that the disciples had to shake the dust from their feet as they left.

You see, political messages, whether specifically linked to a religion or not, often provoke a mixture of reactions.  But first come the questions.  What does this policy or idea mean for me?  Will have more or less money, more or less freedom?  Secondly, we might ask what this or that policy means for those closest to me.  Will my relative get the care they need?  Will my children get the best education?  Then wider questions of society creep in.  Will my local library stay open?  What about the rivers, the environment, the very future for my descendants on the earth?  All these – and many more – complex questions are weighed in our minds, often in just an instant or two.  

Then, the politician seeking to persuade us throws us some motivation to trust their policy.  Ezra did exactly that, by reminding the people of their history, and effectively claiming that his new Government was built on the glories of the past.  Some politicians will blame immigrants, or other foreign governments – just as Ezra did (a little later).  He did it by demanding that all the pure Jews in Jerusalem should divorce any foreign wives and cast them out of the city.  Such politicians make a play for our emotional support, by reminding us of our history, by flying flags and other patriotic tokens behind them as they speak.  Even Jesus wasn’t immune from calling his people to remember the past.  It’s the way politics is done.

So, in this Political Party season, how are we to judge wisely, among the political choices we are offered? When we begin to understand that all our reactions are variable, and related to some very basic, instinctive survival instincts, how shall we sort the wheat from the chaff being thrown our way from the podiums?  They only answer a Christian can give, I would argue, is to only support those policies which can be seen directly reflected in the political manifesto of Jesus Christ.   That means acknowledging, as we must, that Jesus had a spiritual message, but also a profoundly political one too.  G.K. Chesterson once observed that the great pity about the Christian Kingdom was that it has never actually been tried.  And as I've observed before, anyone who doesn't think that Jesus had a political (as well as spiritual) message has clearly not read the same Bible that I read!  

To the politicians who jostle for our vote, the Christian asks, ‘what would society be like if the meek truly inherited the earth?’.  At present, about 90% of the land of the United Kingdom is owned by private landowners, the government, the military, the churches, agriculture and the national parks.  Only about 10% of the nation’s land is available for you and me to build a house upon.  What would it really look like if the meek were to inherit this earth, and if the mighty were cast down from their seats (and yachts, and castles, and private airplanes)?    

To the politicians who jostle for our vote, the Christian asks, ‘what would the world look like if we took seriously the command of God to Adam and Eve, that they should ‘take care of the garden’.

To the politicians who jostle for our vote, the Christian asks, ‘what would our society be like if the poor were truly blessed, if peacemakers were properly honoured, and if the wealth of the nations were equitably shared?’

These are all idealisms of course.  But so is all politics.  The trick is to discern the patterns, to be aware of the mind-games being played on us, and to test all political manifestos against the teaching and experience of the Scriptures.  For as Ezra and his people discovered, there is wisdom there, available to all.  If we would only have ears to hear.  Amen