Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Learning from other faiths and cultures...

Today marks the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which we will commence by meeting with our friends from other churches at the United Reformed Church, at 1200.  So for today’s sermon, I’m going to draw heavily on the texts of the booklet of resources for the week of prayer, which has been prepared by Christians from Burkina Faso. 

Burkina Faso is in the Sahel region of West Africa, which extends into the neighbouring countries of Mali and Niger. It has 21 million inhabitants, of about 60 ethnicities. Approximately 64% of the population is Muslim, 9% adheres to traditional African religions, and 26% is Christian (20% Catholic, 6% Protestant). These three religious groups are represented in every region of the country, and in virtually every family. 

Burkina Faso is currently experiencing a serious security crisis, which affects all faith communities. After a major jihadist attack was mounted from outside the country in 2016, the security situation in Burkina Faso, and consequently its social cohesion, deteriorated dramatically. The country has endured a proliferation of terrorist attacks, lawlessness and human trafficking. This has left over 3,000 people dead and almost two million internally displaced. Thousands of schools, health centres and town halls have been closed, and much of the socio-economic and transport infrastructure has been destroyed.  Social cohesion, peace and national unity are being dramatically undermined.  Christian churches have been specifically targeted by armed attacks. Priests, pastors and catechists have been killed during worship and the fate of others who were kidnapped remains unknown. Christians can no longer openly practise their faith in many areas of the country.

The materials for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were prepared by an ecumenical team from Burkina Faso. The chosen theme is “You shall love the Lord your God ... and your neighbour as yourself” (Lk 10:27) – which, coincidentally is mirrored by our parish strapline:  “Loving God, Serving Neighbour”.

The fact is that many of us will not have heard about the challenges being faced in Burkina Faso before encountering the material from the Week of Prayer.  That is a powerful reminder of the many neglected conflicts that continue to destroy lives and devastate communities around the world.  Sadly, many fail to capture, and fewer still manage to hold, the attention of the world’s media.  The Church is called to be an advocate for those caught in these forgotten conflicts, and to amplify the voices of those who feel, and often are, entirely forsaken.

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity the Church is being challenged to stop and tend to the wounded and, in so doing, to recognise our own wounds as churches and as communities. As the General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, Dr Nicola Brady, has written: ‘Facing the reality of our own brokenness helps to connect us to the suffering of others from a place of humility and deep empathy, creating a sacred space of encounter inspired by Christ’s healing love.

The parable of the Good Samaritan was chosen as the centre piece of this year’s Week of Prayer.  It is one of the best known passages of Scripture, yet one that never seems to lose its power to challenge indifference to suffering and to inspire solidarity.   It is a story about crossing boundaries that calls our attention to the bonds that unite the whole human family.   As I’m sure you know, the core of the story is that of a foreigner (to Jewish eyes) turning out to be the one person who can help the Jewish man beaten up in the road.  His own people, even his own priest, was unable to help him.  But the foreigner, the Samaritan, was able to set aside his own prejudice, and to be a good neighbour.

In choosing this passage of Scripture for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the churches of Burkina Faso have invited us to join with them in a process of self-reflection as they consider what it means to love our neighbour in the midst of a world-wide security crisis. Communities in the British-Irish context may be less vulnerable to acts of mass violence than in Burkina Faso, but there are still many living with the memory and/or the threat of serious violence, centered on issues of identity and belonging.  There are also groups within communities, including people from ethnic minority backgrounds and people seeking asylum, who feel particularly vulnerable to violence or to being displaced by the threat of violence.

Our neighbours in Burkina Faso call us to reconnect to God’s dream for us – a dream of a unity formed of ties of love and compassion. This challenges us not only to reflect on the learning from our ecumenical journey so far, but to widen our vision. What can we learn from people of other faiths?  What can we learn from those whose backgrounds are most different from our own?  And what do we need from each other?

In recent weeks, as you know, we’ve had the joy of getting to know a family of Christians from Pakistan.  They have been learning a lot from us – especially about how to worship in the rather traditional way we do things here at St Faith’s!  But we’ve been learning from them too.  They have helped me to see St Faith’s as others see us – especially newcomers.  We’ve also had some terrific discussions about the differences in our cultures. 

One example worth relating is a chat we had about how families function in Pakistan.  There, unlike here in England, different generations tend to live together.  Grandparents, parents, grandchildren – all living together in the same house.  Children are brought up to respect their elders.  They routinely attend church and learn to worship as their elders do.  The faith, and its traditions are thus handed down from generation to generation. All this is very different to the English practice of creating ever more novel ways of worshipping, to meet the consumerist choices of the next generation.  We also tend to separate and stratify our different age groups.  In schools, for example, we stratify children by the year of their birth.  In churches, young people routinely leave the worship of the adults, and are sent out to Sunday School.  There are, therefore, only rare opportunities, in England, for young people to grow up in the company of their elders.  Unlike Pakistan.

This is just one example of an answer to the questions posed by the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Those questions bear repeating, as I conclude:  What can we learn from people of other faiths?  What can we learn from those whose backgrounds are most different from our own?  And what do we need from each other?  Amen.

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