Sermon: Sunday 19 June 2016
Fourth Sunday after Trinity
The Revd Canon Dr Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
Isaiah 65.1-9; Psalm 22.19-28; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39
I want to begin by reading you something from St Martin’s Church magazine about Good Friday:
“England is fighting for its existence – would that all the callous and indifferent ones could be so shaken up that this truth could be forced into their inmost souls – and the urgent and necessary work of providing for the army and navy must go on without cessation. Our Lord Himself, true patriot that he was, would be the first to say so even on the day of His death……and what has England hitherto stood for in the main? These great causes and virtues which are in principle a fundamental part of the Christian deposit, and which have uplifted and freed millions of human beings of every race, wherever on this globe the Union Jack has waved, and made them thank God for British Rule and British Empire. Are we going to allow this beneficent power to pass into other hands, which have already given deadly proof of the uses to which they will most certainly put it? No…..this year let work go on on Good Friday and those who have to do it must take with them the thought of our Lord and be sure that by work done with this true motive they share in His Cross and merit His Blessing.”
Extract from St Martin’s parish magazine March 1915 – vicar’s letter (F E Nugee)
This is from our parish magazine by the then vicar Fr Nugee in March 1915 – and I find this quite chilling to read. My friend Elizabeth Amias is writing a book about this period in Leicester and found this among other interesting bits.
I read it to you as an example that the church as an institution and most certainly the clergy as individuals don’t always get things right. Not at the time, and certainly not in hindsight. I don’t assume all of my opinions will stand the test of time - please do feel free to disagree with anything I say.
It has been an awful and frightening week.
The anti-gay hate killing in Orlando shocked me last Sunday. It annoyed me that the prayer released by the Church of England didn’t mention any specifics and that the statement by the Pope forgot to mention that all the victims were gay. Not quite good enough I am afraid.
I am speechless by the reaction of Donald Trump who said yesterday that if only the victims of Orlando had carried guns and had hit the assassin right between the eyes with a bullet …. that would have been a beautiful sight. I wish I could vote in the presidential election – it does feel somewhat unfair that this election will have such an impact on my life and I am powerless and cannot vote.
I am disgusted by the stupid violence displayed around the European football Championship in France – and the only bit I found helpful was a rather cynical comment on twitter: ‘The Polish fans are now on the rampage in Nice. 100 cars have been valeted and waxed, 50 boilers repaired and 5 walls built.’ Sometimes sarcasm does help.
The discussion about the apparent difference between immigrants and expats I find deeply offensive. I may be an expat, as the land of my Father is another country, but as an immigrant I have spent a third of my life in this beautiful, welcoming and gorgeous country – and I feel patriotic about Britain. I am not an exchange student and I am not here on holiday: I live here with my family, I feel at home in Leicester, and today I will sing the National Anthem at least twice – and I am offended that European immigrants like me are made out as a threat and a menace to this country. I do speak with an amusing accent, and I don’t mind people joking about my background or my incredibly Aryan looks – I was greeted on my first day at University in 1996 by a tutor who said:
‘Oh, we are more used to Germans hanging from parachutes than studying theology, but welcome anyway.’
That sort of thing happens rarely and mostly I don’t mind that at all – after all being German means carrying a national responsibility for the crimes of my countrymen of the past. Similarly – and on another level – you might find it difficult to talk to some people if you were visiting South Africa, Kenya, or indeed Dresden. I happily live with that German responsibility – in fact I love living here and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with Leicester. But I take strong exception to my family and myself being made to feel unwelcome.
The atmosphere over the past weeks has been unpleasant and poisoned by populist paranoia and unworthy of the democratic culture of Britain: Nigel Farage’s shameful ‘Breaking Point’ poster makes me furious.
Again – like in the American presidential election I cannot vote in this one.
Everybody is in shock about the murder of Jo Cox – clearly killed by a disturbed individual. Some of you will disagree, but like Orlando I see a wider picture: Orlando points towards a particular Islamic theology which fails to acknowledge its contribution to this hate crime. Constantly denouncing the depravity of Western culture in many mosques creates a background where somebody feels entitled to shoot 50 gay people and injure many more. Ridiculous gun laws where any idiot can buy a semi-automatic rifle have something to do with the crime being made possible in the first place. Similarly the poisoned atmosphere of the past weeks with its increasingly violent rhetoric created a background where some mad person felt enabled and entitled to shoot a member of parliament he perceived as a traitor of Britain.
He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.
Relationships are tricky. They require both well-formed individuals and a cohesive communal whole. Individuals who are too isolated, and deprived of human contact are often quite damaged. Mad and raving at the edge of society, in the tombs, in either literal or metaphorical deserts, in places where demons dwell… And people who are too group-centered, who have no boundaries, who can’t tell where they end and where anyone else begins are often equally damaged and damaging. We are built for and called into relationships by God. And this central truth about us reveals some profound paradoxes at the core of our being: We crave independence and we fear being alone. We long for togetherness and we fear being assimilated. The current political debate is all about fear of being alone and being assimilated, of desire for togetherness and desire for independence.
To hear Paul say “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” is both a comfort and a challenge. It’s wonderful to feel like we’re not alone in the world. And it’s terrifying to lose our identity.
Assimilation to any kind of hive-mind destroys so much of what we value about human experience: uniqueness, beauty, and difference. We hold independence, identity, and free will as prized, positive values, but we also highly value, and need community, togetherness, and connection. The idea of becoming one with Christ, one with all that is, if it means losing our whole identity, can be frightening.
The demons understood this. They “begged him not to order them to go back to the abyss.” To return to that is to disappear into murky sameness. Losing their identity is terrifying even for demons.
Learning to balance our genuine need for independence with the equally important and likewise genuine needs of our communities is a lifelong work.
The demons torment this man into breaking the bonds with the community, and they drive him into the wilds alone. But the people of Gerasene are perhaps exacerbating the situation by forcibly keeping the man in relationship, in the community, by keeping him “under guard and bound with shackles.” Thus, we have an image of a person simultaneously tormented by his isolation and his chains.
Alone and naked in the tombs or chained and under guard no one was able to see the man as whole before Jesus came.
When the demons had left and the man was sitting at the foot of Jesus “clothed in his right mind” the people were afraid. Real relationships are scary. Relationships often feel safer when we’re around people who are similar to us. People who like us, and whom we like. Yet, the walk with Jesus is constantly asking us to open up that circle and to accept, and even love, people who aren’t like us. Not by chaining them to us, but by allowing and loving the expanses between us. God is constantly moving us from “even them?” Even the Greeks? Even the slaves? Even the Syrians and the Germans? Even the ones who live in the tombs? Even them? To: Yes. Even them.
Relationships are tricky, and these are the kinds of relationships we as Christians are called to. Neither a radical isolation nor an undifferentiated togetherness, both of which lead to madness and the breaking of community. We are called to relationships where a marvelous living side by side takes place. We’re called to love the expanses between all of us, and to seeing ourselves and all of God’s children as whole, and complete and gathered together before an immense sky.
The next two weeks I will spend immersed in the commemoration of the First World War. The Tigers Regiment are coming after this service, Armed Forces Day is on Saturday and the following week we mark in the Cathedral the beginning of the Battle of the Somme – which saw the mindless slaughter of 420,000 British, 200,000 French and nearly 500,000 German soldiers. The flower of an entire European generation was wiped out by stupidity and populist paranoia.
Where are we 100 years later? We are somewhere different – clearly – but I wish my answer could be more confident this particular week.
Lord, have mercy.