Evensong – St Nicholas Harpenden, November 8th 2015
Isaiah 10 v 33 – 11 v 9 & John 14 23-29
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Remembering. Today, and into next week we will spend time remembering all those who have lost their lives or been affected by war. It is an important act of remembrance, and sadly the process of doing it, doesn’t seem to alter the levels of violence around the world. The usual aim of remembering something is so that you achieve something, or at least perhaps have the ingredients for dinner. The act of remembering those who have died though is more mixed. It can bring happy memories of that person, or perhaps sadness or anger at how they died.
This evening’s readings seem to me to be focussing on peace, reconciliation and remembering. Often if we have a loved one who has died from an illness we will focus our emotion on perhaps raising money or awareness of whatever affected them. For others it might mean raising awareness of personal safety issues, traffic problems, addictions, or bullying. I am sure you can think of others.
But that act of remembering brings about some emotional response and perhaps a desire to see a change, in order to prevent the same thing happening to someone else. We remember, often, in order to make things better.
However the act of remembering those who have died during war and conflict, also requires us to recognise our differences, and those things which cause us to begin arguments in the first place. Those differences which can cause us so much pain, are elements which our Old Testament reading tells us need not be a barrier to peace.
I think there is much hope in this evening’s readings. They link together some key themes for today, of peace, reconciliation and remembering.
The passage from Isaiah almost seems like a dream which might be too good to be true. An ideal in so many ways. It speaks of a king with all the elements one would wish for in the perfect leader. Superhuman wisdom, with the natural flair for creating justice in society, bringing about good and preventing evil, while also ensuring his or her own personal integrity. Not matter what your opinion is of any given world leader or head of state, this is an enormously tall order. But nevertheless the ideal, the hope, is written there… that this person, who is consumed by – and able to bring about righteousness, is coming.
What follows is the incredible image of absolute opposites living very comfortably side by side with each other. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb. The leopard shall lie down with the kid. The calf, the lion and the fatling together. And even more remarkably they will be led, shepherded, by a little child. The state of peace which this brings up is a thing of such beauty, and yet as one commentator wrote, it is really not what our most hopeful personal image is likely to be.
George Kilpatrick suggested that our ideas about this perfect existence are more likely to revolve around material things. We don’t expect to deal with wild animals by care and negotiations, but by using weapons. I read one of his commentaries which was published in 1956. Even then, nearly 60 years ago, he can see our priorities as being very different to those in Isaiah…
“The ideal he (man) has set before himself is almost wholly a matter of physical condition, a higher standard of living, social security, old-age pensions, state medicine, unemployment insurance etc. He has heard, but he does not believe, that to seek “first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6 v33), the kingdom of right relationships, will result in these blessings. He proposes to seek economic and social reform first, confident that improvement in material circumstances will induce a change of heart and a new spirit among men”
Kilpatrick tops this off by writing, “In all of history there is not a shred of evidence to support that view. It is in flat contradiction to the wisdom of Jesus Christ.”
Well, that’s us told. Who hasn’t succumbed to retail therapy to make themselves feel more hopeful and better about life? And for that short amount of time, it works. But it doesn’t last. Kilpatrick pulls no punches pointing out that what we should be striving for is much more based on relationships and living alongside each other peacefully, despite our very clear differences.
I suppose deep down we know this. It’s just easier to go and buy a pair of shoes. Shoes don’t argue with us or present us with ideas which question our belief system, moral compass or way of life. Agreeing to disagree and love someone despite them seeming to be the polar opposite of you is a huge undertaking, and yet wouldn’t the world be more peaceful if we did?
But for now, I would look great in those shoes so I will start there and worry about peace later.
Today – Remembrance Sunday – should be a time for considering just this. Of course, wars are started for all sorts of reasons, and on a more domestic level we fall out with people over sometimes the silliest of things, but perhaps if we could all respect each other’s differences, there is a chance this image from Isaiah might actually become something we can see in our own lives.
Eastbourne Pier has recently been bought by a man called Sheikh Abid Gulzar. Having completed the deal last week, and held meetings with locals to get their ideas about how the pier should be developed, he now plans to have it blessed. He said,
“I think a blessing of Eastbourne pier before Christmas would be very apt and relevant for the town and indeed the wider community. I am a Muslim, my operations manager Manas is a Sikh, and other members of staff are Christians – I want to emphasise the importance of diversity and accepting each other’s culture. We must all respect each other and we should all have the freedom to follow whatever religion one may wish to. But that doesn’t mean we cannot all come to together as one and join together. I would like the pier to be blessed with a clear message – to live together and act together. And that is what I would like to do in the next couple of weeks.”
What struck me about his statement wasn’t that he was supporting one faith over any other, but that he wants everyone to come together and act together, regardless of their background and faith.
I guess that’s fairly straightforward though, in encouraging people to live alongside each other. But what happens if you have really deep seated fundamental problems with someone who has wronged you or your loved ones in some way? How on earth is it possible to try to live with them peaceably? Buying shoes is so much simpler.
Terry Waite – the envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury was kidnapped in 1987 and held for five years in Beirut by Islamists, chained to a radiator. He had gone there to negotiate the release of hostages. Twenty Five years later he returned to meet with Hezbollah, the terrorist organisation which held him. He talked before the meeting about how he had no hard feelings. That “people” focus on individuals like him, the westerners, without thinking about the many Lebanese who had been killed.
The entire exchange is documented on the Telegraph’s website, but essentially Waite suggests they leave the past behind them, and says “I believe that reconciliation between larger groups, political groups, has to begin here with our own personal reconciliation”, adding “ The only way to reconciliation is to grow and not to look back but look to the future.”
He then went on to suggest that Hezbollah could help refugees in the country over the Christmas period as a specific act towards the Christians during the festive Christian period. Waite was told he was welcome back at any time.
Is this a scenario in which the lion lies down with the calf? They seem unlikely bedfellows. Perhaps even more amazingly, Waite was interviewed earlier this year and said he would risk kidnap again to go and talk to ISIS. We are not all peace negotiators, and perhaps our personal reconciliation is not as dramatic as that of Terry Waite and the officials of Hezbollah, but we all have little steps we can take.
I’ve just started reading a book called The Forgiveness Project by the journalist Marina Cantacuzino. It’s a remarkable book detailing many people’s true stories about their struggles around forgiveness. I heard her speak at Greenbelt, and was amazed at people’s capacity to seek reconciliation and attempts to find forgiveness and to forgive.
There stories from all over the world, England, Ireland, Chechnya, US, South Africa, Australia, and Lebanon to name just a few, but I want to tell you the story of Bassam Aramin from Palestine. He explains about how, while growing up, their homes were invaded and local children killed. Having watched another boy shot and killed at the age of 12 Bassam, not surprisingly developed deep need for revenge at a very young age. He considered himself a freedom fighter, but to everyone else he was a terrorist. Bassam ended up in jail, after throwing a grenade he found, which exploded. Nobody was injured. I won’t go into detail here, but his seven years in jail were brutal. One of the Israeli guards asked him one day how he had become a terrorist, as he seemed so quiet. An unlikely person to end up in jail.
Bassam explained he was a freedom fighter, and eventually persuaded the guard that it was the Israelis who were settling on Palestinian land. Not the other way around. They became friends….the guard even smuggling some coca cola in for them one day.
Bassam said, “Seeing how this transformation happened through dialogue and without force made me realize that the only way to peace was through non-violence. Our dialogue enabled us both to see each other’s purity of heart and good intent.”
Bassam was released around the time of the Oslo Accords when there was hope of a two state solution. This didn’t happen, but instead of letting his resentment grow, he and others who believed in a non violent way forward, began meeting in secret with former Israeli soldiers. The soldiers were refusing to fight, simply on moral grounds. They didn’t want their society suffering further. Bassam says,
“It was only later that we both came to feel a responsibility for each other’s people”
We’ve heard three stories of people who can recognise, but see beyond their differences, and are trying to live alongside people with other views or opinions….. creating an environment where our differences need not lead to violence. It sounds idealistic, but they are finding ways to pursue this ideal.
And there are tons more stories like these out there. I think it might just be possible to learn to live peaceably, and to avoid conflict. But it needs to be our goal, our ambition, the thing which motivates us more than new shoes to make us feel better.
If you’re in need of extra inspiration, I can recommend you watch last night’s episode of Doctor Who. I wish I had seen it before writing this. A truly thought provoking story about words versus conflict.
Our gospel reading from John has some beautiful words in it.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
But just before that we are told that we must remember. This instruction is to the disciples to recall the significance of Jesus’ actions after the resurrection. To remember the importance and relevance of his teachings and actions, while remaining unafraid in the times ahead.
Today, as we remember all those who have fought in wars, both those who died and the survivors, let us honour their memory by pledging to seek for peace and reconciliation wherever we can. Let us remember the deeds and words of Jesus, and strive to focus on building a world where we recognise and respect differences and learn to live with each other, peacefully. Where the lion might lie down with the calf.