Civic Service

Sermon: Sunday 20 May 2012

Civic Service

The Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills

‘Shemayisrail, adonaieloheinu, adonaiechad’

Hear, O my people, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

‘Bism…..Qolhuwallahuahad, allahus-samad’

Say, he is the one God, the one whom all seek.

The first of these two phrases, from the reading from Deuteronomy, forms part of the Shema, the call to the people of God, to remember and love God in all we do, in our actions, in our words and in our hearts.  The Shema is an affirmation of faith in God and it is an obligation on every Jew to recite this passage each morning and each evening.

The second phrase is from the Qur’an, and can form part of the daily prayers recited five times each day: in the morning, at mid-day, during the afternoon, at sundown and at night.

And each tradition from the line of Abraham, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have similar commandments to love others, not just those who are like us, not just those who follow our same religious traditions and customs – but to love all those around us.  And many have interpreted this commandment to love one another as a kind of ‘Golden Rule’ – to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  There is a website that finds 21 belief systems, religious and non-religious, hold to some form of this Golden Rule.

I only came to live in Leicester in 2009, even though I have been visiting this city for much longer.  In that short time I have been privileged to hear the stories of so many of the wonderful people living here in this city.  I have heard tales of hard-working factory workers, of those whose grandparents came to Leicester in the Jarrow marches – a march to find work and a decent way of life.  I have heard from those who came over in the ’50s and ’60s from the West Indies, in search of work here in the factories, of the poor housing they had to endure at first – but then built up decent lives for themselves and for their families.  I have heard of those who came here from East Africa as exiles with nothing, of how whole families were met at the train station with food and blankets and taken to their new homes, of how they were helped by their new neighbours – neighbours who saw a people in need and shared with them a means to work and a decent way of life.

This is a city of people who work hard, but are also willing to share their hard-earned bread with others in need.  It is a city of opportunity.  It is a city that takes people in and gives them a chance.  And each group of people who came to this city took up that same ethic – of sharing what they have with their neighbour.  Whether Sikh or Jew, Hindu or Muslim, Christian or Buddhist or Humanist or Bahai – all share this one ethic, to treat their neighbour as they would want to be treated.

In 2010, I was never so proud to be in a city as the day after the EDL came to Leicester for the first time.  We had stood together at the clock tower and later here in the Cathedral as shops were being boarded up and barricades put up around the city.  It felt like a city preparing for a siege.  But the day after was such a day of joy and celebration.  We were one city, one Leicester.

And again only a few short weeks ago when the Queen came to this city, to this Cathedral, the buzz in the city was electric.  People of all traditions and backgrounds stood together on the pavement to celebrate her visit – it was a day full of joy and warmth.

Abdul Osman, this is the city you will be serving this coming year, and it is truly a magnificent city.

But for all this there are also challenges facing us, facing all of us together.

You see the story of the Good Samaritan which we heard in our Gospel reading challenges us to go deeper than treating others as we would wish to be treated.  This story challenges us to love, to love our neighbours as ourselves.  And this commandment to love is placed alongside the command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength.  Jesus is telling us that however much we might claim to have faith in God, that faith is as nothing if we do not also love those around us with the same strength of love, with that same heart and soul and mind and strength of body.  We are being asked to go that extra step, not just in mundane acts of kindness – but to step aside from the road, go out of our way, stop to mend the broken and the wounded, to pick them up, to carry them, to feed and care for them until they are strong enough to carry on.

And who does Jesus use as example of this good and loving neighbour?  He uses as example someone from an outcast tribe, someone whom most of his people would have despised, would not have gone out of their way to help.  This outcast, who stops to help, is given as an example of the person of good faith, as the good neighbour who loves others, as the person who reaches across a barrier of indifference, of complacency, of prejudice and of hatred even, and goes out of his way to help, and to love.

All of our faith is come to nought if we cannot do the same, if we cannot reach across those barriers that divide in order to love our fellow humanity.

While there is so much to celebrate here in Leicester, there is still so much to be done.  I have walked in schools and colleges and seen students of all cultures and faiths happily sharing their scriptures, their food and customs, their holy days with one another, sharing these warmly and with laughter and with joy.  But I have also been in schools where it is as if the students had formed separate tribes, even walking down different sides of the corridors – never mixing, never touching, never talking.

I am aware there are neighbourhoods where people from different backgrounds dare not enter, of mosques and synagogues and other places of worship which have been subject to vandalism.  I am aware that some from our Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender community have been subject to abuse from their families and religious communities, afraid to express their sexuality, of wives and children of gay men who have to hide their illness, their HIV, from their families for fear of being ostracised.  I have sat with women deeply frustrated they cannot go into their places of worship simply because they are women and the profound hurt, anger and frustration they are feeling by being cut off from their spiritual centres.  I have heard of the young people pressured to be one thing at home but living another life at school or at work.  They have told me they are waiting for the ‘old men’ to make room and give them space to talk, give them space to explore their faith in a spirit of openness.

Are we willing as a whole community, as a whole city, to look for those wounded by the side of the road, those who do not yet feel they have been given that chance to lead a decent life?  Are we willing to step aside, to embrace them, to bind up their wounds, to carry them to a place of healing and find strength?  What can we do for our young people, to enable them to live not only alongside but with people different from themselves, in a spirit of not just polite friendship but genuine and deep relationship with one another?  To enable them to connect with their older generations feeling they are accepted and their issues heard?  To enable women to feel they are welcome in their places of worship and have a voice in their religious communities?  And to enable those who are ostracised for whatever reason to find a place where their pain can find healing and they can feel respected, accepted and loved for who they are rather than who their families or communities expect them to be?

There is a film, Of Gods and Men, which depicts the last months in the lives of a group of monks living in a monastery in Algeria.  The film shows their daily life of prayer, of ministry among the local villagers, most of whom are Muslim.  It shows them visiting their homes, their family and religious celebrations, of helping the illiterate fill out official forms or their doctor providing medical care.  It shows the care the villagers gave in return, helping in the monastery gardens or going to market or carrying out repairs.  It also shows the turbulent times they are living through and the groups of terrorists who occasionally raid their monastery for medicine and food, demanding medical care for those who have been shot, and pressure from the army who want to occupy the monastery.  Until finally the monks themselves are taken hostage and eventually killed.  The end of the film reads out a letter written by one of the monks to his family – stating how much he loves the Algerian people, praying that if he should die at the hands of one of the terrorists, he hopes that they will both be embraced by the love of Christ, meeting as two happy thieves together in Paradise.  This is a love that does not even feel the need to express forgiveness.  Forgiveness is so freely given it not even need be mentioned.  There is only love.

What is not in the film, but is recorded in the book Christian Martyrs for a Muslim People, is the story of the abbot of the monastery who during the Algerian Revolution for independence had served in the French Army as a young soldier.  During that time he had befriended an Algerian policeman who at one point discovered there was going to be an assassination attempt on his life.  His friend foiled the plot – but was found murdered himself the next day in revenge.  The abbot had always felt his Muslim friend had laid down his life for him, and he wanted to dedicate his life to the Algerian people as a result, and if God so willed to lay down his life.

I pray that none of us will be so called, that none of us will have to sacrifice our very lives in such a violent way.  I do pray that we can sacrifice our lives for one another in acts not only of kindness, of treating each other as we want to be treated, but also in stepping aside to embrace those who are disenfranchised, marginalised and voiceless.

Abdul Osman, this is a magnificent city and there is much to look forward to in the celebrations of the Queen’s Jubilee, the arrival of the Olympic torch and all the other festivals this city is so good at celebrating.  And there is also a great task in enabling those who feel cast aside and wounded to live a decent and dignified way of life.  Amen.

© The Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills