Saturday, 30 August 2014

We are Nazarene

Sermon for Trinity 11.
Matthew 16:21-end, Romans 12: 9-end
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Sunday 31st August has been designated a global day of prayer for Iraq. With the fact of persecution staring us in the face, and sickening images across our TV screens,

How are we to respond to evil?

I hesitate to say I have ‘4 answers’ but here are 4 things to perhaps consider…

1. It is a reality in our world.

Recently the Church had an attempt at producing a revised baptism liturgy, an updating of the present form of words, which contains these questions, posed to the parents and godparents: ‘Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?’
These were replaced with: ‘Do you reject evil, and all its many forms and all its empty promises?’
Well, you can imagine the furore this caused in a Church that isn’t exactly known for embracing change!
I wonder whether you would be a keep-the-devil-in sort of  person, or a reformer?!
The writer and Christian Francis Spufford reported on a baptism he attended where the new words were used to great effect(he thought) and he wrote about it in the Telegraph; but others were not so sure.
Personally I don’t find it easy explaining the devil-and-all-his-works part of the liturgy to baptism families; but recently I did just such a thing where the dad had been a soldier in Bosnia in the 90s.
He didn’t need convincing of the reality of the presence of evil in
the world. It was only too clearly etched in his memory.
In fact it isn’t the first time I’ve talked to a member of the armed forces where the concept of PTSD has come up. There is only so much horror we can cope with as human beings.
And we have been seeing a great deal of horror in Iraq recently.
It is our honour as Christians to display the Arabic letter ‘n’ on our order of service today and to put up posters of the same in our area.
The reason for this is helpfully explained by Russell Moore on the Patheos Blog, from which I quote:
Christians around the world are changing their social media avatars to the arabic letter “n.” In so doing, these Christians are reminding others around them to pray, and to stand in solidarity with believers in Iraq who are being driven from their homes, and from their country, by Islamic militants. The Arabic letter comes from the mark the ISIS militants are placing on the homes of known Christians. “N” is for “Nazarene,” those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on why Nazareth matters, to all of us. The truth that our Lord is a Nazarene is a sign to us of both the rooted locality and the global solidarity of the church.
How do we respond to evil and persecution; to the scenes we have witnessed on the news recently, scenes of such evil that we shudder to even concentrate on what is before our eyes...?

  1. 2. Persecution has been with us from the beginning.

We said Morning Prayer on Friday, during which we remembered the beheading of John the Baptist, and I must admit that the story took on a fresh and deadly perspective as I thought about the beaheadings which have been reported recently. his is not simply an outmoded, historic mode of execution; it would appear it is happening in the 21st Century.
How should we respond?
As ever, the Word of God speaks into this situation.
The Christians at Rome knew a thing or two about persecution.
The 1st state organized persecutions of Christians took place under Nero in AD64 but the first Jewish Christians had been persecuted before that, and scattered to the four winds, after the death of Stephen, the first martyr.
Someone has said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
I found an interesting essay, which questioned this assertion.
The author was Canadian and he had carried out research on the Russian persecuted Church; concluding that sometimes persecution actually wipes out a Church, so it is not as easy to say that persecution leads to church growth.
But he concluded that Church growth nearly always led to persecution of some sort.
His comment to his fellow Christians in Canada was this:
So when people ask me, “Do you think we will ever have persecution here in Canada?” recently I’ve
been inclined to answer, “Why should we be persecuted? In what way is the average Canadian Christian
making such a difference for the kingdom of God that he/she warrants being persecuted? In what way
does the average Canadian Christian stand out from his/her society in such a way that the offense of the
cross that Paul speaks of in Galatians is exhibited?”
We might take his words to heart in this country…

So how are we to respond to evil?

       3. We weep with those who weep.

If we are to weep with those who weep, it means being informed.
That’s where we will probably need to supplement our newspaper reading something from a believing perspective.
Canon Andrew White is the only Anglican Priest still ministering in Baghdad and has frequently been called upon in the past by Islamic and Christian leaders to act as go between.
His church has a rich ministry of worship ad humanitarian aid, is constantly under threat, many of his staff members have been murdered; yet still the ministry of gospel continues there. I will read a latest extract form his blog:

Update from Iraq – Canon Andrew White

AUGUST 27, 2014
My Dear Friends,
How I long to be able to tell you positive things here. So for a moment I will not tell you the negatives. This is the week of our children’s first communion, it is one of the biggest events in the churches year. Each day the children come for several hours of intense study. There is such excitement. Yesterday as I sat down with the children I asked them why they were so excited. They basically said that when they were baptised their parents had promised that they would follow Yesua but now they have decided themselves. I was able to give each of the children a mega-voice solar powered bible, we have had many donated to us from “Leading the Way” in Australia and Northern Ireland. These bibles have been such a cause for joy amongst us, some are also going to be given to the people in the North who have had to flee leaving everything including their Bibles. So amongst the devastation there has indeed been the joy of our Lord.
Meanwhile we always think that things cannot get worse but they continue to. Dr Sarah is in the north with a good team of people we have got there doing so much of the relief work with the huge numbers of displaced people – Christians, Yazidees and others. I think that it is wonderful that the person heading up our work amongst those fleeing the Islamic State is in fact a Muslim helping the Christians.
One thing that has caused us great distress in our work is that there are all sorts of Christian groups turning up here going to the camps, taking pictures, asking the camp managers what is needed but delivering nothing. All the authorities are saying to Dr Sarah that she is the only one that helps them. This is the sad reality we have not seen other on the ground bring real help. UNHCR is now on the ground providing basic tents and food but there is so much more we have had to do. Provision of wheel chairs, babies cots, nappies and medicines to name but a few of the many things we are providing. Yesterday I heard an account from one of our people who used to be here with us. He is disabled and was not able to flee with everybody else so he hid with his children. Eventually the Islamic State broke into the house they lined up the children and said that unless he converted to Islam they would all have their heads chopped off. He said the words of conversion and they allowed him and his children to live but made them stay. He cried on the phone to me “Abouna Abouna I still love YESUA, will he still love me and my children?” I assured him that He did and that he still was a Christian and belonged to Yesua. I thought what would I have done if my boys were going to be killed in front of me?’ (

So finally, how do we respond?
4.     Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21).

We know that evil will be overcome with good because of the Cross.
In our gospel Jesus has the painful experience of rebuking Peter (it must have been pretty painful for Peter too).
The suffering comes before the glory.
Jesus will not be deterred from the Cross, because only the final facing down of evil with his body and blood, will open the way to victory.
Whatever theory of the cross you like to hold to, I’m fond of the one the Church Fathers gave us, which they called ‘Christus Victor’: that through his death, Christ triumphed over evil and defeated it completely.
Let us hold onto this fact as we consider our brothers and sisters in Iraq, and Canon Andrew White and the work of St George’s Baghdad.

How are we to respond to evil?
By remembering it is a reality in the world.
    By remembering that persecution has been with us from the beginning and indeed may always be the result of a spiritually healthy church.
    By weeping with those who weep.
    By holding onto the Cross, where evil is overcome by good.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

A Mother's Boldness

Sermon for Trinity 9. 
Matthew 15: 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

I expect, like me, you have been following the news unfolding in Iraq with horror.
My attempts to update myself on new events about fundamentalism and its terrifying spread through Iraq, is met with warnings online of graphic photos, and I’m not sure I want to see them.
The Catholic online reporter writes: ‘what is happening in Iraq and Syria, especially to Christians, is not hyperbole. They have shown no mercy to women or children.’
Wherever there is violence and conflict, it is often mothers and children that come in for the most severe fall out.
As a mother (and I expect anyone who is a parent will feel the same) I can only imagine the horror of fleeing from persecution, and the ensuing fear, travelling, homelessness, hunger, exhaustion and dislocation that has been brought on the minorities in Iraq who do not wish to see it become an Islamist State.

Mothers and children are traditionally thought of as in need of protection, certainly when children are very small and defenseless.
But in even in extremis, mothers have always been resourceful when it comes to protecting their own children.
On Friday the Church remembered Mary the mother of Jesus, one who said yes to the demanding call of God, who was also made a refugee at the time of Herod’s purging of Jewish babies, ad sent into exile in Egypt.
In our reading today we see the strength and determination of another resourceful mother, though this time a non Jewish mother.
In Jesus’ day the the Jewishness of a baby was carried down the maternal line.
As an online Jewish blog explains:
‘Jewishness is not in our DNA. It is in our soul. The reason it is passed down through the maternal line is not just because it is easier to identify who your mother is. It is because the soul identity is more directly shaped by the mother than the father…
Jewishness is passed down by the mother because being Jewish is a spiritual identity, it defines our very being. And our very being we get from our mother, both in body and in soul’

Historically, the Jews had to guard their faith with strong boundaries which marked them out from the surrounding pagan nations
As a matter of national survival, circumcision and the Ten Commandments/special relationship with Yahweh was instituted, and at various points in Jewish history, strongly threatened.
It’s a known psychological fact that threatened people put up boundaries.
Into this steps Jesus, a Jew, with a strong sense of mission to the Jews, but a habit of crossing boundaries, to the horror of many other Jews surrounding him.
The Jewish faith was closely guarded by the Pharisees and Sadducees.
To some extent their guardianship was admirable: there were many threats, but this close guarding could alienate the less religious and make them feel like outcasts.
And outcast were Jesus’ speciality.

We who are used to the rituals of the church, what you do at the communion rail, what you do during prayers and hymns, how you find your way around books in church, mustn’t forget that all these things are alien for a growing % of the population.
In Jesus’ day things were very demarcated.
The desperate woman who approaches Jesus to heal her daughter, is not part of the covenant people; she is a non Jew, an outsider.
It was unusual for a woman to instigate a conversation with a man.
Even more so, that a Gentile, one of the unclean ones, should approach a Rabbi.
And it may be, like me, you are puzzled, even disturbed, by Jesus’ reaction.
In Mark he says he was only sent to the house of Israel.
Matthew embellishes by adding that he ignored her requests and the disciples became bothered by her insistent calling out.
He certainly doesn’t hurry to respond to her.
We might also ask, why is Jesus even in this pagan territory of Tyre?
Mark suggests Jesus went to region of Tyre to escape the crowds.
He is in pagan territory; he doesn’t expect to find faith in this place.
He hadn’t bargained someone who was about to throw herself at him.

Timothy Keller, writing in his book on Mark’s Gospel, asks the question: ‘How do we approach Jesus?
When did you last throw yourself at Jesus?
Do we have a sense that God is too remote, or that He can be accessed at all hours, no questions asked, so long as he grants me my hearts desire?
Do we come to him casually, or with awe and wonder?
I come across people who are afraid of God, who despise him, who are upset with him, or who ignore him, as well as those who love and worship him.
For instance, some people keep their hands in our pockets when they worship God
I recall someone getting told off during training for preaching with ‘a lazy evangelical hand’; one hand in the pocket doesn't exactly send out the right signal about how we view things divine...
The Syrophonecian woman comes to him in desperation though.
Again, Tim Keller: ‘You know why she has this sudden boldness don’t you? There are cowards, there are regular people, there are heroes, and then there are parents. Parents are not really on the spectrum from cowardice to courage, because if your child is in jeopardy you simply do what it takes to save her.’ (p.86, King’s Cross)

Jesus’ response, that it is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to dogs, seems an insult to us, even with our toleration and love of dogs as pets, which was unknown in Jesus’ day.
In his day they were simply creatures that begged; they scavenged at the foot of the table, hoping for leftovers.
In our society, where people insist on their rights, we are astonished that the woman herself was content to go along with this figure of speech, this suggestion that she is like a dog content with the leftovers.
In fact she understands perfectly what Jesus is saying, revealing her abject poverty of spirit.
Blessed are the poor in spirit….
She knows she is not worthy.
As we say in the Eucharist, echoing her very words:
‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table…’

Isn’t this the key to the question ‘who is richly blessed by God?’
Those who are richly blessed are those who know their need.
And suddenly, here is the universal Saviour who cannot fail to respond ultimately to a show of faith, wherever it may be found.
So for the woman’s amazing retort, that even the dogs eat the crumbs under their master’s table, her request is instantly granted: an exorcism, from a distance.
Her daughter is healed instantly.
To quote Tim Keller again – ‘She’s not saying Lord give me what I deserve on the basis of my goodness’; she’s saying ‘Give me what I don’t deserve on the basis of your goodness – and I need it now’ ‘ (p.88-9)
This is a parable of the gospel in a nutshell.
Here are the disciples, slow to understand, trying to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem and be killed.
Here are the Pharisees, obsessed with internal religious order, unaware they are neglecting the very essence of a loving God and failing to share the good news.
Here is an un-named pagan, a woman, who immediately understands the free gift of God in Jesus Christ and doesn’t mind debasing herself to get it.

And so we come to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
It was her special day on Friday, 15th August, and we marked it at Morning Prayer on the Team.
Here too is a woman of humble spirit, in this case, a Jew, but one who said yes to God, and bore Jesus to be the Saviour of the whole world.
As we listen again to the ancient piece of music, 'There is no rose of such virtue', 

let us also say YES along with Mary, and may we follow in her footsteps of obedience, as we pray for mercy towards all those mothers in Iraq who cry out to God, and to us, day and night.