St Nicholas Church – Sunday June 19th 2016 – 9.30am
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I know I’m supposed to start a sermon off with a joke. But I just don’t have one. Just the fact that Dennis in his wisdom asked me to preach my first sermon at a 9.30 service, on the Sunday before the European Referendum is frankly, hilarious enough.
And then, just when I thought the focus of this morning was going to be the EU referendum, the shootings in Orlando happened last weekend.
And then, just as I thought I had a plan for this morning……the MP Jo Cox was shot and killed.
So I hope you’ll forgive me for the lack of jokes. I’m just not finding things very funny right now.
My original focus was going to be Europe. So let’s start there. I’m not going to tell you how to vote and will try my hardest to remain impartial. If you are seeking theological argument and opinion on how to vote you can find it elsewhere, but as a helpful guide, the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey says Leave…..the present Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby says Remain. As does our own Bishop here in St Albans. And while I don’t intend on telling you how I think you should vote, what I can talk about this morning is what I believe our reading from Galatians might be saying to us. But I will come to that later.
So while we are probably all becoming quite weary of the In/Out debate….while economics, law and sovereignty are being bandied about as reasons to vote one way or the other, and while the issue of immigration was merrily being thrown around for our benefit, a man went into a nightclub in Orlando last weekend and shot people because of who they are. Not because of what they believe or any opinions they hold, not because of any life decision they had made, but because of who they fall in love with, and the person they were created as.
Many have spoken out in solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bi and transgender community. Myself included. Many also raised concerns about the gun laws in America. Over there. In America.
But then on Thursday one of our own MP’s was shot. We don’t really know all the facts, but it seems that the man who killed Jo Cox disagreed with her opinions. Opinions which supported each person, regardless of who they are or where they are from.
Suddenly, shootings are not just “over there”. They are here. The stretch of water between us makes no difference. They have guns. We have guns. People on both sides of the Atlantic are being shot simply for who they are. Let’s be honest, we know these things don’t just happen in Britain and the United States. It’s just that those are the incidents we hear about. People are being killed and victimised for who they are and loving people for who they are. Different countries. Different continents. Same planet. Same space. It isn’t them and us. It is us.
Who are we to decide who owns which bits of land anyway? It’s all one world. Is that too simplistic? Too idealistic? To just suggest that we are one world, regardless of our differences? No, I don’t think it is. I don’t think that it can be.
Many of you will know that I spent some time in Palestine after Easter this year with the Amos Trust. I visited many of the holy sites, ran a half marathon in Bethlehem – as you do – that may be the closest you do get to a joke this morning….but I also visited refugee camps and spoke to Palestinian Christians and Muslims about how they were developing what they describe as Beautiful Resistance. A way to peacefully protest at the occupation of their land. This is not the time or the place to discuss the Israeli Occupation, but one of the phrases which stuck with me was during a meeting with Zoughbi Zoughbi of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Reconciliation Centre. He simply said….
There are many complex arguments about the Occupied Territories – Palestine – but this one sentence really stuck, and cuts through all the politics. God is not racist.
Wi’am is situated by one of the main checkpoints in Bethlehem, under the shadow of the wall, accompanied by a couple of Banksy murals outside. When I say in the shadow – that’s exactly what I mean. They wanted a place children could go and play, a place with a garden. And they put it by the checkpoint as a point of peaceful resistance…..just like the motivation of the communion services – like ours today’s – in the fields of the Cremison Valley. Peaceful resistance. The centre gets tear-gassed. The garden furniture is burnt out. The children’s play stuff damaged. The garden is decorated with empty tear gas canisters which have been thrown over from the other side of the wall.
Zoughbi says this, “dwelling in victimhood is suicidal, enhancing the guilt will paralyse others, blaming is toxic…so a collective responsibility is the most important thing…..and the challenge is how to transform the garbage of anger, the garbage of hate, and to flower in the tree of compassion.” “We are committed to the non-violent struggle, against the occupation through the popular struggle, because we would like to deprive the Israeli government from an enemy”
I have so much more I could tell you about how the people I met strive peacefully towards the goal of peace for all. But now is not the time. Just remember their statement – God is not racist.
Which brings me so neatly to this morning’s reading from Galatians. In a week where the world seems – in my opinion and that of many others I know – to be a dark and scary place….Paul reminds us in our lectionary reading today that God sees no division. However we see others, however we vote, whatever our differences are…..to God they are invisible. There is no East nor West, no Jew nor Greek, no man no woman….and in the light of the shootings in Orlando – no gay nor straight. We are all the same.
This building we worship in is old. It has a great history, lovely stained glass, and a beautiful font. And yet it divides us. It separates us out into those with small children in the back corner. Children who attend Sunday Club at the front. The choir in their stalls, the clergy and assistants at the front, with everyone else occupying their usual seat everywhere else. We are divided. Some can see, other are stuck behind a pillar. We are in our place. If I had the courage this morning I would ask you all to stand up and swap seats. For the choir to sit down the side, the toddlers to move to the front, the children can come and sit here and the rest of you find a different view. Mix. Be as one. Don’t separate.
When writing this, the words of a song by U2 were stuck in my head. The song is called Walk On and was written for Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest in Burma.
And love is not the easy thing
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can’t leave behind
Bono, U2’s singer, said it was based on a passage from Corinthians about a house which suffers a fire. Like us on judgement day, what will be left after all the material things are removed? If we take away law, money and sovereignty? What is left? The only thing you cannot leave behind. Love.
So however we chose to vote this week, think on today’s reading. We have a choice to make on Thursday, but we also have daily choices to make. We can choose anger and hate and aggression. Or we can choose and grab hold of love. We can choose love as a peaceful resistance to the problems in our lives.
The only thing which is left at the end of the day is love….love for each other and God’s love.
Jo Cox MP said “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”
St Paul in his letter to the Galatians said,
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
We are all the same. To quote Bono again. We are one. Choose wisely, choose love.