SERMON BY THE VICAR, Trinity 14, 2015
Readings: Proverbs 20, James 2, Mark 7:24-end
If you have had a holiday over the summer just gone, maybe you spent at least part of it in a car. Cars can be at time unreliable friends, and, as I have an old car, I spent some of the time in August by the side of the road waiting for my car to be towed into the garage to be fixed yet again. Fixed in my mind right now is an incident with a car which changed the course of my ministry, and my heart. 25 years ago, Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. I was then serving in Amman, Jordan, and outside my church a group of four Filipina women appeared in a Bentley. “Father” they said “what can we do with this car?” Like thousands of others, they had been working in Kuwait, and been abandoned by their employers, who had fled to Saudi Arabia, leaving them to fend for themselves. They simply took the keys of the car, and drove it to Amman, where they abandoned it. Within days, we had thousands of others- like them, all stranded. Within days, the churches had responded by setting up camps for them where they stayed until they were repatriated. I think this encounter changed the course of my ministry and life, enlarged my heart, and enabled me to see refugees and those fleeing from war in a different light. For many, the tragic image of the lifeless body of the three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on a Turkish beach may have done the same. What is required of us now is an urgent question requiring urgent action, and as always, Scripture, our Christian tradition, and our reason will have urgent guidelines for us. The clear thrust of today’s readings is our responsibility for each other. This from Proverbs “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” Or this from James “Faith, by itself, if it has no good works, is dead “or this from Mark, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” These biblical insights all point to the central truth, which we see from our Christian tradition and our own reason, that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. For an answer, I’m going to use three Latin tags which you can see at the base of an Egyptian obelisk in the Vatican, Christus Vincit, (Christ Conquers), Christus Regnat ( Christ Rules) and Christus Imperat, (Christ commands). I used these three Latin tags in a setting of a new anthem using the words of William Wilberforce” You can look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know” All these words speak with startling contemporary relevance right now.
First Christus Vincit. Christ Conquers. These words have been, and are, of enormous comfort and encouragement to those who experience the abuse of earthly power. This abuse is not, and will not be, the final word. In almost daily contact with my friends in Syria, I know that this sustains them, as does the knowledge of our prayer and action with them in mind. The present tragic situation of Syria and Iraq will not endure for ever, despite the total failure of our political leaders to understand and grasp the moment. One hundred years ago, the map of the Middle East was redrawn by Britain and France in the Sykes-Piquot Line. Today, as I speak, the map of the Middle East is again being redrawn, but our political leadership is not there helping to assist this process, and be ahead of the game. Instead, it has been left to those of malevolent and violent intent, principally IS with its ideology of hate and death. To seize the initiative with a vision for a new Middle East can only come through the concerted political action of the international community through the UN – but the vision and the will to do this is not there, as nation states follow their own vested interests. If it is Christ who conquers, and not a Kalashnikov or a barrel bomb, then this needs to be translated into the concerted international will of the world community working together for the good of all.” The Christian Just War theory assists, with an appeal for increased humanitarian intervention, and the prospect of the perpetrators of war crimes being brought to justice – be that now or, more controversially, from the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is Christ who conquers, not a cruise Missile.
Next Christus Regnat. Christ Rules. For those who experience plenty, it’s very easy to forget this, and to assume that we rule ourselves through our reliance on our material stuff. In today’s Old Testament reading, Proverbs reminds us what happens when people forget where they have come from and on what their life depends. This often happens in “easy” times when everything is going well and we have work and money in the bank. More often than not, people return to the Lord through disaster, when something completely outside their control happens. James makes the same point with these words, which we just heard, “Faith by itself, if it has no good works, is dead.” This gratefulness to God for all we enjoy lies at the root of the lives of all healthy churches, and will lead us to action for the common good. Right now, it is right, I believe, as the public is now doing, to demand the Government reconsider its less than generous response to political asylum. Germany has promised to take in 800,000 genuine political refuges, Britain 600. Many are asking, at least, for an urgent debate in Parliament this coming week to address this very question. The churches can play a vital role. Take one example, the Bishop of Norwich recently worked with the County council to identify unused housing stock, and immediately rehoused thousands of political refugees. Theism is civil society and the churches working together for the goof of all. But most importantly, with each one of us, when Christ Rules in our hearts, we will respond with an overflow of infectious generosity.
Now Christus Imperat, which some English wag wrote should be translated in the contemporary British context as “Christ suggests, rather quietly, definitely apologetically, and as one option among many after first testing the waters timorously with a focus group.” Christ commands as we live the Gospel life. We believe that when we live in this way under the command of Christ, human society and the church will flourish. Christ commands, translated into our daily life, will enable us to be bold and confident as we plan our lives together under God. If Europe is to mean anything, in terms of values and relates it should be possible to work together by: agreeing which countries will take how many asylum seekers; by establishing well run reception centres at all the pinch points – Eastern Turkey, the Bulgarian border with Turkey, the islands of Kos and Lampedusa, and on the coast of Libya. In these centres, people could have their claims assessed, the genuine separated from the opportunistic, and the genuine resettled around the world, including the United States, who have been curiously silent on this subject. The financing of this work can be done by the international community working together and perhaps, in Europe’s case, immediately diverting finance from yet more unnecessary prestige projects. In this country, we have a long and distinguished history in welcoming refugees from violence – Huguenots, German Jews, Hungarian, Ugandan Asians, and so I could go on. I also recall that I was publically welcomed to this Parish when I was inducted by Michael Portillo, his father a political refugee from Franco’s Spain. This is the new world which all can inhabit. Christus Imperat.
These three Latin tags have sustained God’s people in good times and in bad, in times of plenty and ease, and in times of persecution. They speak of the true freedom of the baptised believer as freedom under authority. This is the Gospel life, the life of abundant and overflowing generosity. The Gospels tell us, with the analogy of the wedding feast, when we live like with overflowing generosity, we will be blessed. And we are, of course, all blessed, as we share in this foretaste of the heavenly banquet where Christ invites and says to each one of us – “Friend come up higher.”