Seeking Refuge – a sermon at Epiphany

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Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
Today we recall the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Unlike in most Nativity plays, these Magi were not actually at the birth of Jesus, nor did they arrive that very night or day. Traditionally we mark their coming on Twelfth Night or Epiphany – twelfth night being quite naturally the twelfth day after the birth of Jesus, and ‘epiphany’ being a manifestation, usually a manifestation of the divine.
I am really quite fascinated by this particular passage in Matthew about the visit of the Magi – there are just so many interesting layers of meaning. In the scripture itself the number of Magi is not specified, and we have taken the number three from the number of gifts that were brought. But really we don’t know the number.
Magi at the time of Jesus birth were really rather suspect characters, associated with interpretation of dreams and of the movement of the stars – and because of this with magic. And it is partly because of this scholars believe the literal veracity, or truth, of the tale. Why recount the visit of a suspect group of outsiders to the birth of the Messiah? Wouldn’t this be cause for suspicion rather than a proof of his divinity and special birth? And yet Matthew has chosen to include this story. There is an interpretation of the New Testament from a Jewish perspective which considers this visit to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles as well as to the Jewish people – and this is also reflected in many Christian interpretations.
But how did we get from suspect Magi to Kings? This, again, points to another series of layers of meaning. The gold, frankincense and myrrh are usually interpreted as representing a recognition of Jesus royalty, represented by gold; his priestly or sanctified status, represented by frankincense; and myrrh to be held onto for anointing his body upon death. But it is also representative of the expensive and royal gifts brought by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon – that of gold and spices, and that her gifts foreshadow the royal and holy status of the Messiah. These gifts to Solomon have also been reflected in the first reading from Isaiah – which refers to the exalted status of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem is here depicted as a widow mourning the loss of her beloved – but is comforted by visions of the restoration of her glory, not in human kingship but in the kingship of the Divine. This reference is purposeful – the passage from the Gospel of Matthew is reinforcing the divinity of Christ in referring to these royal gifts to be presented before Jerusalem. Jesus is the divine king who will rule Jerusalem, and who will rule the world, though possibly not in the political sense we understand today. That leadership is one of the heart, Love as the law by which all are sustained.
This passage also has a clever difference in the use of words by the Gentile Magi and those used by Herod. The Magi refer to the child to be born as King of the Jews, which would certainly have been a challenge to Herod’s kingly rule. But then Herod turns around and refers his chief priests and advisers not to the birth of a king but to the possible birth of the Messiah. He is asking a theological question about the signs of the birth of the Messiah, while the Magi are asking very practical questions.
This actually makes Herod’s decision to slaughter the innocents all the more insidious – he is not seeking the death of a rival king, but seeking the death of the awaited Messiah.
And the recording of this slaughter is purposeful – yet another layer to the story. It is a reflection of the slaughter of male children at the birth of Moses. The danger of this child who would bring down the might of Egypt is foretold to Pharaoh in a dream – reflected by the dreams and foretelling of the Magi.
I was recently asked by a church officer for any thoughts on immigration, and among my responses was the observation that our patron saint, of the diocese and of England, St Alban, gave his life for that of a refugee seeking sanctuary in this blessed isle for the freedom to follow his religion. At Epiphany I tend to reflect on the pride with which many of those I met in Egypt declared their loyalty to the Christ child, proud that Jesus, Mary and Joseph found refuge & shelter in Egypt for a time.
I’m also reminded of my time in Iran, during which the country had taken in a round 1 ½ million refugees from Soviet occupied Afghanistan, & later took in another 1 ½ million from the war with Iraq. A nation suffering economic sanctions was looking after an additional 3 million people, arriving with no possessions or wealth. And also the nation which it is alleged the wise travellers from the east originated: the city of Qum which I came to live in.
Our faith began in the light from a vulnerable child seeking sanctuary, a child that still is seeking safe refuge within our hearts. The power of this child, the light Christ brings, a light the wise cross deserts & mountains to seek, the power of love that brings down tyrants, is seeking still, calling out to us in the plight of boats abandoned in the sea, full of the desperate, fearful & homeless.
In his New Year’s message, the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked on the generosity of Britons to the plight of the world’s suffering, and especially of people such as Pauline Cafferkey battling for her life in a London hospital after succumbing to the Ebola she tried to fight.
Let us pray for the courage of the wise – to welcome the light of the Christ child in our lived lives as well as in our hearts.
Amen.

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What is Sexual Jihad? a talk given at the House of Lords, more or less…

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On the 24th of June 2014 an All Party meeting was held in Parliament to discuss the rising sectarian violence and recent threats from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. I was asked to speak, and this is a summary of what I said, with a few additions for clarification.

So what is ‘sexual jihad’? Some have described it as when young women are radicalised and lured into ‘fixed term marriage’ or ‘nikah’ in order to act as comfort women for those men fighting with ISIS and other extremist groups. There have been reports from Tunisia and from within Syria itself of girls either enticed willingly or kidnapped against their will in order to have serial sexual intercourse with men. There have even been reports of young European women being influenced to do the same.

And then there have been counter claims that all of this has been an attempt to discredit ISIS and their like.

Those working in the areas of development and human rights have acknowledged it does their cause no good to either falsify reports or to exaggerate. So at this point, until there is further well-documented evidence I reserve judgement on the validity of these stories. It is important at this stage to not deny what could turn out to be based in real experience, nor to go along with something that may in fact turn out to be an untruth.

What cannot be denied however is the suffering of women and girls in war zones, as we heard so clearly during the recent Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict (https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/sexual-violence-in-conflict) and especially in current events in Syria and Iraq. ISIS (sometimes called ‘Da’ash’ in the Arabic) have their origins within the umbrella of al-Qaeda, and are associated through al-Qaeda, even if somewhat loosely, with groups such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and others. These groups have a proven track record of kidnapping young women and girls for the purposes of sexual and domestic slavery. They are also sold as a means of financial gain. And now we are given to understand women and girls are used for sexual acts as payment of jizyah tax.

Human trafficking is the second largest source of illegal income second only to drugs, and exceeding illegal arms sales (http://www.stopthetraffik.org/the-scale-of-human-traffiking) During the height of the global slave trade going into the antebellum South (of the United States), 80,000 people were trafficked across international borders per year. Currently that number stands at 600,000-800,000 per year (from the book ‘Half the Sky’, more information at: http://www.halftheskymovement.org/). Of those trafficked, 80% are women and girls. This means every year a possible 640,000 women and girls are sold into slavery, and the majority of those are used as sexual slaves. This is a criminal practice having nothing to do with faith.

There are currently more refugees out of Syria and Iraq than from WWII. The majority of those, again, are women and children. It is well documented that women living in refugee camps live in fear for their safety and the safety of their daughters especially. As a result, they tend to push their daughters into early marriage believing this will protect them.

And women have been enticed by wealthy Arab men, predominantly from the Gulf countries, into promises of security through marriage. These women are used, abused and then discarded – leaving them even more vulnerable than before.

If there is such a thing as this sexual jihad, of young radicalised women willingly providing sexual comfort for extremist groups – and I am not saying there is or isn’t – it is something the current Prevent agenda in the UK is not addressing, nor are our political, community or religious leaders.

It is known that a British woman holding extremist views was at the heart of the attacks on the shopping centre in Nairobi. I have known young teenage women in Iran who were part of the MKO at the time of terrorist bombings in Tehran, Qum and across the country. I managed to talk them out of the organisation, without having committed anything serious – but I can easily picture them as being susceptible to this type of ‘jihad’. They were wanting to be a part of a radical movement, and would have done anything for it.

Current endeavours for building peace in the region, for prevention of radicalisation and growth of extremist ideas both in the UK and abroad tend to exclude women, when UN and wider academic studies have demonstrated not only the effectiveness but also the vital necessity of inclusion of women at all levels of negotiations. Women have been very much the victims of these events and must be included in finding solutions.

 

 

 

 

 

We are all connected! a sermon from Trinity Sunday

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people embracing‘Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?

Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counsellor has instructed him?

Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice?

Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales;

see, he takes up the isles like fine dust…The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.’ (from Isaiah 40)

I recently watched a programme interviewing astronauts who had flown into space, who had circled the earth and viewed it from the heavens. Each one of them reported how they returned inwardly changed. They saw the earth, they saw people, through new eyes. They saw the oneness of the earth and how everything flows into everything else, how all is connected through the seas and the winds and the movements of animals and people. There are no borders, no lines on maps.

People and animals find amazing ways of surviving, even thriving, in what for others would be extremely harsh conditions – those who live in extreme cold or heat, those who live on the sea, hardly ever stepping foot on land and those who never see the sea.

But everything we do can have an affect on everyone and everything else. There are artificially manufactured chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides and the like which have invaded our environment, and were later discovered to be the cause of cancers and deformities at birth, even still births. Seemingly pristine landscapes have been found to be collection points for some of these chemicals – the earth’s flow of water, air and even land, carrying them until they gather at certain points, unable to flow any further. Miniscule bits of plastic now float in the oceans and collect in the bodies of the fish we eat.

There was a documentary recently about the prawn industry in Thailand – about how Malaysian men, seeking to find refuge, are instead trafficked onto fishing boats where they are forced to work as slaves – cleaning the catch of prawns, prawns which find their way to our supermarkets and sold so cheaply. They are not allowed back on land for years at a time, and oftentimes end up dying or being murdered and thrown overboard, never heard from again.

There are so many stories like this – and it sometimes feels just too daunting to try to keep track of all the things we should and shouldn’t eat! So most people just give up. It’s too much!

Arocha http://arocha.org.uk/ is a Christian movement for environmental concern. Among their most powerful messages are those which remind us that everything we eat, everything we consume is sacred. Our relationships are sacred, so where we purchase our food from, or how we grow it, who we share with, and more importantly how we share – are all vitally linked to the worship of God we share together on a Sunday morning.

I think one of the saddest things I have read recently was an article that stated fast food is the food of the overworked and underpaid. It takes time to be able to cook a meal, lovingly and slowly. It takes time to be able to pick out the individual ingredients and ensure they have come from an ethical source. It takes more money to be able to buy fresh produce grown locally. When you have little in the way of resources, when you have little in the way of time – when you are having to work shifts or all the hours God gives just to put food on the table for your family – oftentimes it is the cheapest, fastest and poorest quality available. And this is no criticism of those particular consumers, but more an indictment of a society that places little value of the sacredness of our food and of the bodies God has created for us to inhabit.

This is why it is so important for us as a common humanity to speak out to prevent the trafficking of human beings just so we can have cheap food. To speak out against the pollution of our environment. Everything we do affects everyone else. We are all interconnected. And the solutions to these problems can only come when we work together. I was recently reading about what it took to help end the slave trade in the United States. The British public took a tremendous dip in revenue, loss of trade and income, for the sake of human beings who were suffering elsewhere. At the height of the slave trade in the Antebellum South, 80,000 slaves were trafficked every year. What most people don’t realise is that currently 600,000-800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, nearly 10 times the number Wilberforce and the British nation sacrificed so much to eradicate. 80% of those trafficked are women. There are no statistics for those people who are trafficked internally, never crossing international borders, and suffering in unrecorded silence.

In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

He begins his command with an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of creation, he dismisses borders – and tells them to use the name one of the most intimate of connections, that of a parent and child and the bond that hold them together. The Father, creator and loving parent; the Son, redeemer of the world and loving child; and the Holy Spirit, sustainer of us all, connecting us to one another and to God, that quiet voice that whispers in our hearts and lending strength to follow what we know to be the right path – the path of sacrificial love that sees the sower of the seed; the wind and the rain and the sun and the good earth which help it to grow; the reaper, the thresher, the one who grinds the wheat into flour, and the one who bakes the bread – all those who labour that we may eat. As we share our Eucharist each Sunday, we share it with all those across the face of this earth who receive the bead and the wine in their own churches, for our churches are truly One Church, blessed in Trinity.

Sitting at the Foot of the Cross

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‘Sitting at the foot of the Cross’ tripped so lightly off the tongue as if there were some redeeming quality in sitting there watching someone suffer torture, for we are the ones who put him there in the first place and we sit in fascination watching the pain, our own pain finding relief with each drop of blood that falls.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross for too long, watching the parade of mutilated children, bodies hacked to pieces by our machines of war, souls stripped of dignity, bellies sunken, spirits sunken from a hunger that could easily be assuaged if we would only, only learn for once to share our bread.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross of Christa, legs forced so wide her body torn in half, her heart torn asunder by the blows, the rapes, of the man who claimed to love her, would take care of her. He took care of her alright. Her eyes stare empty and cold and afraid, waiting for the next blow, her sweat and labour and mind bumping against the glass ceiling, angry fists battering to shatter the glass in her own face for the sake of the children she must feed and clothe and shelter, because the men won’t or don’t, because they drink and smoke and gamble away the nourishment of children.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross as wars wage, as cross and crescent and David’s star and Bodhi trees are born aloft, magic talismans of some god’s protection of some race or land or bank or honour or gender or whatever. The earth is blown apart, in fifty shades of cold grey that seeks to maim and bruise and cut from the earth bright jewels to cover the amulet heart of stone.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross watching the heart of flesh bleed in longing for the rejecting beloved, the object of a Love that is never requited yet goes on thirsting, seeking that cool water of refreshing redemption – and instead receives the bitter gall of betrayal.

Sitting at the foot of the Cross is a bleating lamb, watching and waiting, in stillness, in gentleness, in quiet – gazing upon the desolation of that moment and seeing only the penumbral light of hope, of a coming resurrection, when all the pain and the betrayal disappears, and all that is left is golden light beating with dove-like wings a cleansing fire, burning the chaff until all that is pain, all that is darkness, becomes itself an ember in the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Walking in the desert

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This time of Lent is an allusion to the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before embarking upon his ministry. The Gospels repeatedly remind us that Jesus regularly struggled to find moments of solitude and silence, to escape the crowds following him wherever he went. Time out was essential to the state of his spiritual health and well-being.

Alongside a good friend, Michael Rusk, I was recently privileged to meet with David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Director of Reconciliation. He described for us the archbishop’s intention to establish a contemplative community to be resident in Lambeth Palace and serving the wider borough as well as any visitors to the Palace. But the main focus of the community is to provide a space for prayer and intimacy with God, space to take time out of a punishingly hectic diary in order to stop, to breathe, to find a spiritual and a physical centre for the soul.

During a post-graduate seminar I taught recently, I described the manner in which global events impact on the local and vice versa, and how all of this impacts on our ministry in any parish church. How is what we do relevant to the lives of the people we serve? and how even what we do at a local and community level has an impact on the wider church around the world.

During the WCC 10th Assembly last autumn, a young Christian woman from Iran spoke eloquently about the impact of economic sanctions on the ordinary people in her country – and I repeated her plea to end these sanctions during a lunch with the US Ambassador (apparently a personal friend of President Obama) and at a special parliamentary session on Iranian foreign relations at which there were delegates from the CIA, US and UK departments of defence, and trade interests from around the world. The general attitude of these officials was that the sanctions had worked, they had forced the Iranian government to come to the negotiating table. But I am there to ask, at what cost? The cost being the suffering of ordinary people for whom all this geopolitical intrigue has been a source of hunger, pain, and even death. Sanctions which cause human suffering touch the lives of each and every one of us – they touch our soul, and affect our right relationship with God.

So what does this have to do with the desert? with time out? David Porter mentioned there is a question we must ask ourselves in any conflict situation, whether it is in areas of violent conflict in the world, or the inner workings of deanery or parish politics. What is this conflict doing to your soul? You may believe you have right on your side, but what is holding onto that right doing to your relationship with God and with your fellow humanity? Answering such a question entails taking time out, setting yourself apart from whatever situation you are in, and asking yourself the tough questions. Why am I holding onto this? And what it is doing to me spiritually?

Once you are able to discern what it is that brings your soul closer to God, it is important to hold steady, even in the face of fear – and as Porter puts it, even in the face of someone holding a gun to your head and knowing that however much you may be facing him with a steadfast and loving heart, he could very well still pull the trigger. Surviving conflict is about knowing what you are about and holding onto that calm centre.

During a session of our Lent course, one of our parishioners asked if God were present among us, then surely that is heaven. Heaven is with us here and now, it is up to us to recognise this. So how do we recognise this in the situation described above? Do we have the courage to recognise even the most painful, the most fearful situations to also still be of God, and in the presence of God and heaven? It doesn’t mean we face these without fear. As I have said before – faith is real when it is accompanied by fear. What is courage without fear? There is no courage if you do not feel afraid. Courage is standing in that desert, naked, trembling and vulnerable before God, and yet choosing to continue standing there, waiting upon the spirit of God to lead you home.

These moments do not come out of the blue, they are worked at with discipline. They are worked at through the daily offices and through taking time out to converse intimately with our loving God in meditation and personal prayer. They are worked at in all the relationships we build up with our wider community and between ourselves as a parish. Hold steady to the discipline of prayer and service to one another and to community. Have the courage to take time each day to let go of everything, to walk in the desert, to discern what is good for your soul and its relationship with God. This is what lends strength, lends steadiness, to the times of trial. Before there is Easter, there is the desert and there is the trial. Embrace each, hold steady – for God is indeed with us and heaven is at hand.

Removing the bonds of death through reconciliation

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Ezekiel 37:1-14 – Ezekiel raises them bones
John 11:1-45 – Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead

The Holocaust Museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem takes you on a carefully constructed journey. It is like a university campus with various buildings, each of which tell a different part of the story. You are first introduced to the thriving Jewish communities in Europe, the very different and vibrant ways in which they lived alongside and contributed to European culture and life. You are introduced to very traditional communities, wearing clothing and living a lifestyle that set them apart from others, and introduced to those who were very much a part of their society, contributing in the way of science, commerce and the arts. Life is presented in all its fullness. And then you are shown the manner in which they were torn away from their homes and thrown into concentration camps, families separated or killed before the eyes of their loved ones. You are shown the horrific life of the camps and the ways in which people were forced to betray one another for a scrap of bread. And then there are those who sacrificially gave their lives for others, those who shared their bread, and the righteous among the nations, those who were not Jewish but who did their best to save those they could.

There is the memorial to the children of the Holocaust – a simple round building. You enter a kind of round walkway that seems like a vast cave. The walls, ceiling and floor are covered in mirrors – each of them reflecting a single candle lit in the centre. The light of the candle is reflected through each of the mirrors and those reflecting lights seem to go on forever.

There is the building which represents Sheol – the land of the dead. The walls are of huge stones and everything else is painted black. There is a chance to read out the names of someone connected to you who died in the Holocaust – and in doing so their name lives on. In Jewish tradition, once the 40 days of mourning after a death are over, it is not considered acceptable to speak of the dead – and this is difficult when the whole point of the museum is to remember those who were lost in such horrific circumstances. It is hard to describe what it is like to be in such a dark space, with queues of people lined up to read out a name, what a privilege it feels to have been picked by the group I was with to read out the names they had requested, to know and understand the horrific manner in which those few people whose names I carried had died – each one of them had given their life for others.

At the end of the experience, and the museum is choreographed to be this way, you come out onto a veranda, in the light of the sun, and alongside the young army conscripts or students who are brought there on a daily basis – to demonstrate the hope of the future in the next generation, that despite all the efforts of Hitler, the Jewish people live on and prosper. Ezekiel’s bones are resurrected.

This past week saw the twenty year commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda. A BBC reporter shared the story of just one man he came to know during that time, a man who had saved his life and the lives of they believe over 1,000 people in the course of the conflict. Capt. Mbaye Diagne was a UN peacekeeper from Senegal who somehow managed to smuggle hundreds of people away from the killers roaming the streets and countryside of Rwanda. The film Hotel Rwanda touches on part of his story. Only days before he was due to fly home, his tour of duty complete, he was caught in a road bomb and killed by shrapnel. His wife reports his usual good humour had disappeared, greatly affected by all the death and devastation he was witnessing. But because of him, hundreds of people are alive today.

In a continuing effort for reconciliation within Rwanda, the renowned photographer Pieter Hugo visited a meeting of perpetrators and victims from that time. They are a powerful witness to resurrection after death. Each of the victims suffered loss of home, of livelihood and more importantly loss of loved ones, of husbands, brothers, fathers, children. Many of the perpetrators had served terms in prison, and as part of their rehabilitation into the community they had to not only recant their actions, but seek the pardon of their victims. Here follows a little of the article I found:

‘The people who agreed to be photographed are part of a continuing national effort toward reconciliation and worked closely with AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent)…small groups of Hutus and Tutsis are counselled over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness…

‘At the photo shoots, Hugo said, the relationships between the victims and the perpetrators varied widely. Some pairs showed up and sat easily together, chatting about village gossip. Others arrived willing to be photographed but unable to go much further. “There’s clearly different degrees of forgiveness,” Hugo said. “In the photographs, the distance or closeness you see is pretty accurate.”

‘In interviews… the subjects spoke of the pardoning process as an important step toward improving their lives. “These people can’t go anywhere else — they have to make peace,” Hugo explained. “Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct.” Yet the practical necessity of reconciliation does not detract from the emotional strength required of these Rwandans to forge it —side by side.’ (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?smid=fb-share&_r=3)

The raising of Lazarus from death is a powerful metaphor of love and forgiveness offered to us all by Jesus Christ – Love that can give life for others that they might live, and forgiveness for even the most heinous of sins. Life means life, full of joy and an open ability to love and forgive in the face of pain.

This past week Archbishop Justin Welby went on LBC Radio in London to spend an hour answering questions from the public. Anyone was able to phone in and ask a question. The rather contentious subject of equal marriage came up, several times in fact. And in the last five minutes I believe Justin made one of his more powerful appeals. He shared that he is awake nights trying to balance what is an impossible situation. He hears the pain of gay couples who seek the blessing of the church on the relationships of love and commitment they have found. He hears the pain of parents of gay teenagers who have committed suicide because of bullying. He hears the pain of gay people who have felt themselves rejected from the community of the church, a church that they feel would deny them the love of an ever-forgiving, ever loving God. He understands God’s love to be there for all of us, for everyone. But he also hears the pain of the families and loved ones of whole Anglican Christian communities who have been killed in parts of Africa because others around them, their neighbours, disagreed with the Episcopal Church in America’s decision to sanctify gay marriage. He hears the pain of those Churches in Africa who feel they are coming under increasing pressure to disengage from the Anglican Church in England, in Europe and the US because of this one issue.

Now I have heard people say that ++Justin is weak, that he is giving in to bullies. But I rather believe he is reminding us, here in England, that much of what we do can have repercussions in other parts of the world; to not be naïve about what we consider to be issues of justice. If we seek equal marriage, then we need to take responsibility for what happens in other places. It is not about giving in to bullies, but about taking pity on those who bear the brunt of our actions. It is not about not supporting equal marriage, but about accompanying our actions with a strategy that would enable vulnerable Christian communities in other parts of the world to feel safe. Of course, it must be recognised that the issue of equal marriage is an excuse. If it had not been this, it would have been something else. There is a much greater economic and cultural divide, a divide of histories in need of reconciliation and forgiveness.

We still don’t know what will happen in the next vote in General Synod on women bishops, but we do know that it is because of a strong push to listen to one another, on a human level, that has made the difference in the lead up to this next vote and which has gained much more support. Perhaps what we need, on a global scale this time, is a larger listening exercise on the issues of not only equal marriage but perhaps in general across the Anglican Communion – to enable people to meet face to face, share our stories of pain and loss. It is much harder to hate someone you have sat down with, broken bread with, with whom you have asked about their day or how their family is doing. A process of reconciliation is needed – a process of self sacrifice and of love. As Jesus removed the bonds of Lazarus burial shroud, we need to unwind our bindings of fear and hatred, misunderstanding and ignorance. Just as Jesus rolled away the stone of Lazarus’ tomb, we need to remove that heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.

Cords of Human Kindness, Bands of Love

distributing Eid food parcels last year

distributing Eid food parcels last year

A sermon for Trinity 10, readings: Hosea 11:1-11 & Luke 12:13-21

In the gospel reading, Jesus has been speaking to his followers about faith in the face of persecution, when he is interrupted by a newcomer seeking help with an inheritance. This seems to change the subject completely, but Jesus carefully steers the conversation back to that of faith in God before all else, instructing not to put our trust in possessions but in God. It is not that having possessions is something to be avoided, but rather our attitude to having them and what we do with them. Do we trust in wealth which can easily slip from our fingers or do we put our trust in God, whose love is always with us? But also, of what use is that wealth when it is stored up? Wouldn’t it rather be put to better use storing up what cannot slip away – the good will of others, feeding the hungry, helping the destitute, housing those with no shelter, and supporting our neighbours?

Last night I saw the fruits of a community who have maintained patience in the time of trial, and throughout it all have treated their neighbours with kindness and dignity – even when they were subject to vitriolic harassment. You might recall that last year, about this time, a group of Muslims in Thurnby Lodge estate became the target of harassment from both the BNP and the EDL. Nick Griffin turned up on one occasion, and during the full month of fasting, all during Ramadan groups of so-called protesters would turn up to shout abuse at the Muslims as they gathered to break their fast and pray at the community centre. This continued all through the autumn, with children turning up for after school activities having the run the gauntlet of abuse as they left the building.

All of this culminated on Boxing Day with a pig’s head being left outside the door of the centre when they arrived for prayers in the morning.

But throughout it all the Muslim community bore the abuse with patience, their imam reining in the hot-headed young men. On Eid they distributed food parcels to elderly poor living on their own and a number of us accompanied them alongside police constables as they did this, and Don Smith, our church warden at the time, accompanied me on this occasion. The parcels were sometimes received with sceptical puzzlement, but most were pleasantly surprised. During the worst of the snows, the men would go and shovel the walks of those who were elderly or infirm.

Small acts of kindness built up. Individuals across the estate came to their aid and support, fed up with a small group of hooligans disturbing the peace of their neighbourhoods. And through it all, a renewed commitment to their community centres, a new sense of what it is to be community together gradually grew.

So last night I was invited to break fast with this Muslim community, as-Salaam, at their new Peace Centre. They showed us around, talking about what they have done to fix up the building and about their plans for the future. The imam, Maulana Lockhat then gave his nightly sermon – which was really very good! My colleague said he’d make a good parish priest, and maybe that is what he already is in some ways. There was congregational prayer for the Muslims, and then we all shared a sumptuous meal together. And who was there? There were so many members of the surrounding community, invited as people who had supported them over this past year  – there was a gaggle of elderly ladies, obviously old friends, who were just no longer ready to keep putting up with the nonsense of the protesters, the chair of the tenants association and other community volunteers. And there were men from the estate too, community leaders and a few burly tough men, teasing the ladies and enjoying all the wonderful food.

What a difference from last year. Rather than the hatred and venom being spat out as they went to break their fast, there was a genuine warmth and joining together of community.

This comes of a strength of faith, of a patience, that trusts in God, of a community willing to spend of all they have to make life better for everyone. One member of the Muslim community came up to speak to us. He has a doctor’s surgery in Evington, and told us about how they are now they have raised enough money, through donations, they are close to setting up a Fairshare project in the Peace Centre. The ladies group which last year broke up because they were too afraid to gather anymore, now have weekly rather than monthly meetings, and are joined by non-Muslims too.

The book of Hosea is the story of a prophet of patience. It seems as if everything in his life goes wrong, he is known as the ‘prophet of doom’. But with death comes resurrection. His is the story of forbearance. Even when the people continue to turn from him, continue to turn from God, God deals gently with them, ‘I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.’

And in their eventual sorrow and grief, the people of Israel do turn to God, and are received with unconditional loving-kindness. When we treat one another the same way, we don’t always get it in return – but there are times when we do. The path isn’t always easy, and it certainly hasn’t been in Thurnby Lodge, but patience has borne its fruit.

And I think this is the purpose of the pairing of these two readings. Our possessions do not provide security in themselves. Holding on to things do not give life. But sharing with those less well off, sharing with our neighbours, labouring with patience to build community, and faith in God to provide – these are what bring security.

And there are some who give everything they have for those they love, for their neighbours and for God. I just heard late last night that Fr Paolo, the abbot of the monastery in Syria you will have read about in our parish magazine and will have heard me speak of, was forced to leave Syria over a year ago. But he has been returning to Syria for short trips, it is believed to negotiate release of hostages, and has now disappeared himself, suspected kidnapped. No one knows for certain. But whatever the purpose of his return it was because he could no longer bear to be parted from a people and a country he loved. Fr Paolo has not only spent of his possessions, he is spending of his very life. Those who have known and loved him, are praying for him now, praying that he keep his wits about him, and that the cords of love which have bound him to the people of Syria and his faith in God, will protect him now.

Celebrating women of faith in Leicestershire

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All welcome!

Well, this has certainly been an interesting year. I don’t know why it is especially different from any other when it comes to women’s rights – there have been no real changes on the ground. For me personally it has been somewhat of a slow awakening. What I had considered to be readily accepted norms, what I had believed to be God-given Grace, were challenged. In a year when we all thought it would happen, even the Church of England has failed to come to agreement on women bishops. And along with my personal challenges, there have been challenges on a global scale too.

The challenges began for me when I finally opened my eyes to the fact that women of faith are not welcome to worship in some of our places of worship. When I made that rather public statement in a sermon at our cathedral, and later in a meeting, the youtube video of which went somewhat viral (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSrkt8AglLE), I was warned three times by men, in quiet, that I shouldn’t talk about these things. If I did so then people would stop coming to dialogue meetings, they would refuse to talk about it. I was told it was not my business as a Christian to talk about these things. Who was I to tell others what to do? None of these men seemed to realise I was talking as much about my own religious tradition, my own church, as any other.

I was privileged last summer to speak alongside my friend, Rabiha Hannan, at a Christian festival, Greenbelt, at which around 20,000+ people attend. Now we didn’t have 20,000 come and listen to our talk. It was at the most around 200. We spoke about the person of Eve in our respective Christian and Muslim texts. You see, there are those within our traditions who seek to blame Eve, to blame women, for the downfall of humanity. And our goal was to take another look at the texts, to see what they are really saying. And what we found was that woman and man were created to be helpmates for one another, to love one another, to be bone of one bone, flesh of one flesh. The sin they committed was not in the eating of the forbidden fruit but in their denial of their own culpability, and even more so in the accusation, the betrayal of another, of the one person they were called to love and care for. Losing Paradise came as a result of their loss of trust, and the hardest toil of their exile was winning back that love and trust once again. (see my talk earlier in my blog: https://bonnieevanshills.wordpress.com/2012/10/)

And we are still trying to win that back.

Whenever we betray each other, whenever we betray those we are called, nay, commanded by God, to love – we have to work doubly hard to win it back.

In December a young student was travelling on a bus with a friend. She had the whole world before her. A student at university and about to be married, she was just out with a friend to see a movie when both of them were brutally attacked. The country in which this happened is irrelevant. This kind of brutality happens every day, in every land. But there was something about this one case which caught the imaginations of so many across the globe. Here in Leicester our cathedral held a prayer vigil for her. Organised within the space of 24 hours, hundreds of mostly women turned up.

Since then, through much of the mapping Raheema Caratella has carried out, we have discovered so many women in this city of Leicester, women of deeply held faith and courage, who work so hard, devoting their lives for the betterment of others, particularly the betterment of women – women who have suffered domestic violence, or forced marriage, or rape; women who have been denied an education, who are not allowed to make friends or socialise outside of their homes, women who have no voice, no space in their place of worship.

These women come from every culture, from every background, from every faith – across the board. Their work goes largely unnoticed. Even when we were wanting to give out the publicity for today, we were told to mention something about Woolwich or the EDL or BNP because why would anyone want to take notice of a bunch of women getting together? That was somehow not sensational enough.

When Rabiha and I spoke last summer, we tried to emphasise that it would only be when men could see that their own dignity, their own humanity, could only be raised, could only be made right, if the rights of women were also recognised.  And I hold to this today. We can only do this together. But alongside there is a necessity to recognise the tough courage it takes to face violence,  to face this brick wall, day to day, on the ground, at the coal face of our communities. It is not glamorous, it is not soft. But it is a gentle kindness born of strength, strength that can only be had through the Grace of God given to those with a deep faith, deep and wide as the ocean of love in which it swims free.

Today, we celebrate the launch of a directory, one that will probably never be complete and to which we intend to continue to add to on line; a directory of groups of women of faith, or groups in which women of faith have found a welcome and a home. It is a small contribution, but one we hope will be the beginning of a movement which acknowledges and celebrates the faith, the courage, the hope and the Love women of faith hold for their communities, for one another, for the men in their lives and for God – together.

Trinity : an inseparable relationship of Love

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a sermon for Trinity Sunday at St. Peter’s Church, Oadby

26 May 2013

Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

John 16:12-15 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

In our first reading this morning, Paul’s Letter to the Romans speaks of hope, the hope we have in God through the Grace of the Love he holds for us. This Love is open to us all – Christ’s sacrifice was as much for those considered ‘bad’ as for the ‘good’.

Events of this past week have indeed been distressing. First we had the tornado in Oklahoma. Growing up in Colorado as a child we had tornado drills in school, and all of us knew where to go in a tornado – not that we ever really had any so close to the mountains. And for all the devastation wrecked by this tornado, there was relatively little life lost. There is much to be grateful for.

And then there were the disturbing events in Woolwich. For me it was the almost ordinariness, seeming every day feeling of the film of the murder on the streets of a London suburb. A portion of the film shows a woman walking past with her shopping cart – glancing at the dead soldier on the ground as she walks past his killer brandishing a knife with bloody hands. It is as if she is just not registering what was happening in front of her. The events were shocking in ordinariness. There is something in our brain which prevents us from believing such things are happening. The women who sheltered Drummer Rigby’s body, who talked down the men with knives in their hands, didn’t even think about what they were doing. Their priority was for the others around them, for the children coming out of school, for the poor mother’s son lying prone in the street.

I think we sometimes expect these events to be like the movies – full of drama, of horror and of fear. We imagine heroes to be muscle men wrestling killers to the ground, not mums and scout leaders gently talking them down. And perhaps the real horror of these events is because they happened so quietly, on an ordinary street, an ordinary day, suddenly, inexplicably, a terrible violence held the nation in its grip.

And through all of this it is not hard to imagine that God’s hope, God’s Love, was with the young father and soldier, Drummer Lee Rigby, was with the women who protected his body and was with the police officers as they sought to take control of the situation. But can we imagine God’s hope and Love straining to pour through the hearts of these two young men, there for them as well as for each and every one of us?

Several years ago I arranged a visit for the Bishop of Chichester to visit a mosque in Sussex. Several young men from that mosque had been involved in another bomb plot two weeks following the events of 7/7. They were found out, arrested and imprisoned. This community had until then not really engaged with their neighbours, despite the best efforts of the local authority, police and the local church & priest. But the involvement of several of their young sons in such a horrific plan shocked the mosque community to the core. They were struggling to understand how this could have happened, how their children could have so badly twisted their religious beliefs into an act of terror.

They were clearly nervous about our visit – a large delegation of the bishop, several priests, a few Buddhist monks, an orthodox Jewish rabbi, and the strange lay woman that I was then, organising the event. We were given a warm welcome, and there was some polite conversation. But what broke the ice, was when they were told that we understood their pain, that we were there out of compassion for the confusion and pain they were going through. These guilty sons, had fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, cousins and friends, all of whom were facing a sense of betrayal, loss and confusion. And there was a sense of tremendous shame. It was a community in mourning, and a community feeling embarrassed and confused. A message of hope and Grace and Love made all the difference, and gave them strength to start to open up their mosque to others and to reach out to their surrounding community. Blame would have only made them close up even more.

This week has seen so many statements flying back and forth, Muslim leaders condemning the attacks, and government and faith leaders giving messages of support for the Muslim community, including our own Archbishop Justin Welby from here in Leicester, insisting they not be held accountable for the actions of two misguided young men. And I have been moved by an interview with the director of the Quilliam Foundation bravely admitting that there are a few imams who preach hate, and that the Muslim community must take action to stop them.

All of this is very complex, and only time will tell us more about what drove these two young men to take the actions they did. Nothing will ever excuse or justify what they did. But I also can’t help but wonder at the actions of both government and the media at fomenting heightened emotions. There have been 163 attacks against Muslims since this incident. When a few months ago an elderly grandfather was stabbed to death on the streets of Birmingham as he was walking home from evening prayers, this was not labelled as terrorism. There has even been reluctance to label it as a racist incident. There is little appetite for investigating the motives behind this attack. And yet it is just as shocking, even with lack of film evidence. The killer/s have still not been found.

Our reading from the Gospel of John begins ‘I have many things to say to you but you cannot bear them now.’ In the midst of this awful tragedy, is it possible to pray for the two young men who committed this crime? To pray for their families? To consider what must they be going through at this time? Is it possible to consider that Christ’s outpouring of Love was meant for them as much as for you and me? As much as for their victims?

This is when the command to love neighbour becomes a real test. And yet this is exactly what we are called to. If we cannot love that difficult neighbour then it is as if our love for God has come to naught. And yet even so, even when our love is wanting, and it will always be wanting, God’s Grace comes to rescue us, to count us worthy even when we are not.

Jesus here is saying the Holy Spirit will take what is God’s, declare what is his, and declare it to us – and what is it that Jesus possesses but Love? What is it that transforms the human soul, but Love? It was Love that moved the woman scout leader to approach a man with a knife and a cleaver in his bloody hands, and ask him what he wanted. It was Love that moved a mother and her daughter to shield the body of a young soldier.

It will be Love from the wider community, Love from us in the church who should be leading by example, that will lend courage and confidence to our Muslim neighbours to stand up to the bullies within their midst, bullies who would steal their beloved sons and daughters. It is only by working together as one community that we can stand up to the bullies within our nation, the bullies who would murder a grandfather making his way home from prayers, or a young soldier going out for a break, or those who preach hate rather than the Love and Grace of God.

Early Saturday we were sent a message by the Muslim community here in Oadby:

Oadby & Wigston Muslim Association /Oadby Central Mosque condemn the barbaric and callous murder of the soldier in Woolwich.

Islam does not condone this type of behaviour and it saddens the Muslim community that this act was done in the name of Islam and Muslims.

In Oadby we enjoy a very good multicultural relationship with our fellow religious partners and the way to defeat these extremists is by unity.

Not only has a human being’s life been taken but a husband, loving father, son and brother and our prayers and our thoughts are with the family.

And our own prayers are of course with Drummer Rigby’s family. Let our prayers be also with our Muslim community here in Oadby.

Amen.

Conflict & the Wounds We Inflict – a sermon from Easter One

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Readings: Acts 5: 27-32 & John 20:19-end

When I was in theological college I’m afraid I rather disturbed a fellow ordinand at one point. In a seminar on bereavement we were asked where we stood personally on a spectrum of what life after death was like. Are we resurrected into perfect bodies with no recollection of pain and suffering, or do we remember, even in that place of bliss, in nearness to God, do we remember our pain and retain our scars. One ordinand bellowed firmly that we are all resurrected perfect in body, mind and spirit and there is no memory of pain.

And me in what some consider to be my insufferable manner, stated that I disagreed. Hoe can that joy have any meaning without knowledge of what it is like to be without? Christ was resurrected with his scars intact, the difference being those wounds had been transformed into marks of beauty and hope. I’m afraid this other ordinand looked rather as if his world had fallen apart. I burst his balloon.

It has been held by the poet Khalil Gibran that our greatest pain lies in the joy we experience and the greatest joy is born out of the pain we endure, it is the hope of joy that is the source of pain, the source of longing.

The very emotions in us that persecute and bully others, in our media, when we judge others appearance, or social standing, or their poverty – that same haughty, prideful, angry need to put others down, that need to make ourselves above others, special – is the same emotion that crucified our Lord Jesus Christ. Our celebrity culture that pushes leaders to the height of fame and admiration, and then condemns them for not living up to our expectations – and let’s face it no one can live up to the expectations of others – is the same culture that angrily turned on Jesus when he did not lead a victorious revolution against a tyrant, but rather advocated Love of enemy. These expectations are the very thing ++Justin Welby has expressed wariness over his new role. He will make mistakes, he says.

In a strange voyeurism, we have to know celebrities suffer, we have to know our God has suffers as we have suffer.

My daughter Elva has been volunteering at the Richard III exhibition, and has been rather shocked at the number of people who just want to see his bones. They are angry when they discover the bones aren’t there, but kept in a respectable place until they can be buried. These people want the actual bones.

We want to poke our fingers in those wounds, examine them in minute detail as we examine in minute detail the private lives of both victims and perpetrators of tragedies such as the Philpotts. And I hold my hand up to this as much as anyone else. I want to understand why anyone could go to such lengths to get what they want, put their own children in danger to the point it ends in their murder. I want to know why. And when I watch or listen to endless stories of all their wrongdoings, I am poking my finger in their wounds.

But what does Jesus do? As he enters that upper room where his disciples are full of fear and conflicted feelings. Does he back away? Does he tell Thomas not to touch him? No, he invites him to search. Prod as much as he likes – these wounds are real. These wounds are wounds each of us inflict upon one another. We are invited to examine them – to look and see – what have we done?

The past weekend I discovered the transcript of a conference held recently at Coventry Cathedral called ‘Faith in Conflict’ – at which Sam Wells, Jo Bailey-Wells, the archbishop’s new chaplain, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke about reconciliation and about conflict. Sam Wells described the turmoil one parish was going through over a set of stained-glass windows, and Sam had been asked to help guide them through this conflict. It was apparent each side was entrenched and were not going to budge. And he skilfully listened to each argument one by one – realising each side had come to their conclusion through careful, well thought out argument. Each side was full of pain, and each side knew they were right. Neither understood how the other could be so intransigent, how they could waste Church time and resources in such a way. But Sam concluded with a profound statement:

“And we say, ‘But this church is crucifying me.’ And our archdeacon tenderly says, ‘No, it may feel like that. But really this church is crucifying Jesus. All churches do. Your choice is whether you’re going to impose or pretend a false peace because you think you’ve got more important things to do, which really means more winnable battles to fight elsewhere, or if you’re going to get stuck into the hassle and hustle of truth-telling, repentance, penance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Which one do you think looks more like the cross?'”

Sam Wells is asking whether our arguments, our causes, are worth fighting for? Are we willing to crucify others for the sake of this cause? Are we willing to make sacrifices of our own for the sake of the peace we claim to be seeking?

The point of the conference on reconciliation and conflict was that actually conflict can and should be a good and healthy thing. It leads to necessary change – sometimes that change is painful, and it is the force of the conflict which can be destructive not the actual conflict itself. When we start to listen to others, when we start to ask what we ourselves are willing to sacrifice – this is when real change happens, when reconciliation finds its place. This reconciliation is the point of forgiveness following repentance. This reconciliation is the resurrection following the pain of crucifixion and death.

Oftentimes when people find out I am involved in interfaith dialogue, they have expectations of me being somehow ethereally peaceful or in a constant state of serenity, never a cause of conflict. And then there is great disappointment when they discover I am often at the very centre of conflict, albeit reluctantly! It is at that centre the voiceless are given a voice, the disenfranchised are given the power to stand up for themselves and the vulnerable are lent strength. This is not an easy or comfortable place to be, but it is the place in which transformation is able to take place, it is the place in which reconciliation and healing are able to happen.

++Justin gave the final talk at the Coventry conference, and within that I found this statement to be profoundly comforting: ‘If the Church is not a place both of conflict and of reconciliation it is not merely hindering its mission and evangelism, appalling as such hindrance is, but it is a failing or failed church. It has ceased to be the miracle of diversity in unity, of the grace of God breaking down walls.’

He goes on to invite us to expansive hospitality, a hospitality that is willing to listen to our opponents, listen to our enemies – and taking example from today’s gospel, to allow them to prod around in our own wounds. There is a strength in this that cannot but be held in the attractiveness of Love, that draws all to itself, endures all things, a Love that never ends.