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Sunday, 20 September 2015

Who do you think you are?

I first made friends with her in 1958. She and I were at primary school together, and then at secondary school, and although we grew apart and have led very different lives, we have remained in touch, and have lunch together every six months or so. And last time we had lunch together, we agreed that where our primary school had fallen down was in teaching mathematics. We were very badly taught. “And,” said my friend, who remembers everything, “We were told to ask if we didn't understand, but if we asked, we were told we hadn't been listening properly!” And it wasn't until I started to try to teach my daughter the rudiments of numbers that I discovered that, despite a quite good maths O level, I was fundamentally innumerate, and hadn't much idea of how numbers worked.

But the point is, when we were told off for asking, despite how often we were told to ask, we became afraid to ask. And in our Gospel reading today, we see Jesus teaching his disciples, privately, away from the crowds. And they, too, reacted with fear, and were afraid to ask him what he meant. We then see them fighting among themselves, and, finally, learning something of what it means to be first.

So first of all, Jesus tries to tell his disciples about his forthcoming death and resurrection, but apparently the didn't understand and were afraid to ask. Afraid to ask? I wonder why they were afraid. Do you suppose they thought Jesus might be annoyed with them for asking?

I don't think he would have been. I think if the disciples had said, “Look here, what are you talking about?” he would have tried to explain more clearly. And this might have avoided some unpleasant misunderstandings, like when Peter says, “No, no, I won't let that happen!” which was so totally not what Jesus wanted or needed to hear at that moment that it felt as though the evil one was tempting him.

So why do you think they were afraid to ask? I wonder if it wasn't that they were afraid of appearing total pillocks in front of the others. Everybody was thinking, “Well, I don't know what he's on about, but everybody else obviously does, so I'm not going to be the one to make a fool of myself by asking!” I have a feeling we may all have been there and done that at times – I know I have! You really don't know what the other person is talking about, but you don't like to ask for fear of appearing an idiot.

I don't know where that particular fear comes from – it may be down to early experiences at school, like mine in the maths class. If you ask, you are told off for not having listened properly; if you don't ask, you are assumed to have understood even if you hadn't. And when nobody else asks for clarification, you think you must be the only one who didn't understand!

But in a way, this is a form of pride, isn't it? We are too proud to ask; we're afraid of looking silly in front of other people.

So the disciples reacted with fear, and then they started fighting among themselves, arguing about who was the greatest. Well, we know that Jesus was very unimpressed by this, and so, of course, it's not something we ever do.

Is it?

Are you sure?

The thing is, we might not argue about who is the greatest, as we know that's not what Christianity is all about, so what we then do is pride ourselves on how humble we are, what good Christians we are, how we don't ever put ourselves forwards.... Or maybe we boast about our children. Some years ago, you may remember, there was that excellent comedy sketch series called “Goodness Gracious Me”, with Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar – you know, the famous “Going for an English” sketch. But that wasn't the one I'm remembering here, but the two mothers who keep making ludicrously exaggerated claims about how well their sons are doing. Competitive mothering – or competitive grandmothering – is very definitely a thing! I even find myself doing it with my own daughter: “Well, of course, dear, you were potty-trained before you were two!”

And we have probably all met the sort of Christian who just mentions in passing that they are fasting for Syria, or have donated twenty toothbrushes and six blankets to the collection point in Venn Street – do it, please do do it, but don't talk about it! Or so Jesus said. He pointed out, do you remember, that the people who made a great show of being holy, or of giving alms, already had their reward. “But your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you openly!”

It's all about pride. Again. In fact, this whole passage is about pride. It was pride which kept the disciples from asking Jesus what on earth he was talking about. And it was pride that caused them to argue and fight about who was the greatest – and you will notice that they didn't answer when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about! But he knew. And he began to teach them what it meant to be first.

Being First
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

This, then, was Jesus' teaching about being first and greatest. Again, this doesn't seem to say much to us – we know all this, don't we? We've heard these teachings since we were in Sunday School. Of course we try to be last of all and servant of all. We're the ones you find arguing in the kitchen that of course we'll do all the washing up, all by ourselves, and then we'll sweep the floor and everybody else should go home.... and if people take us up on it, we grumble loudly that we're the only person who every does anything around here, and go around in a delightful glow of martyrish self-pity.

It's pride, all the way. C. S. Lewis said that pride was the central sin of humankind, and that the prouder we are, the more we dislike pride in others. I quote: “In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, 'How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?' The point is that each person's pride is in competition with every one else's pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise.”

And Lewis goes on to point out that it is pride that comes between us and God: “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
St James, in our first reading, said something very similar: “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” And he goes on in that vein: “And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Again, pride. It seems to be at the root of all human evil. The disciples were too proud to ask Jesus what he was talking about. They claimed to have been afraid to ask, but it was probably a fear born of pride. Then they started bickering about who was the greatest, like small children. And then Jesus taught them that they must be the servant of all, and welcome small children in His name. But that, too, so easily goes wrong and becomes a matter of pride.

So what can we do about it? I suppose the first thing is to admit it, to confess it, if you like. But it's the most difficult sin to confess, because it's the one we are most unaware of. And if we do become aware of it, we start being proud of that awareness. You remember Jesus' story of the pharisee and the tax collector, how the Pharisee spent his prayer-time thanking God for how much better he was than other people, and especially than that tax-collector? Well, I read a story about a Sunday-school teacher who taught that story to her class, and said, “Now, children, let us thank God that we are not like that Pharisee!”. Which was all very well until I found myself thanking God that I was not like that Sunday-School teacher....

And it was, we are told, the tax-collector, who contented himself with praying: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” who went away right with God.

Pride is a horrible vice, and I am inclined to agree with Lewis that it is the antithesis of Christianity. It is often the basis of all other vices. Of course we can, must, and should rejoice in our achievements – but having succeeded in whatever it was we set out to do doesn't make us a great person!

We are all sinners, saved by grace. And that is the thing, isn't it – saved by grace! No matter how proud we are, no matter how much we secretly – or openly – want to be the greatest, no matter how much we dislike looking foolish, the moment we turn to God, the moment we stop looking at ourselves and start to look at God, in that moment we are forgiven. And with God's help, and only with God's help, we can overcome our pride. It's not a matter of behaviour – it never is. It's about allowing God to change us, to re-create us, to help us grow into the person we were designed to be. After all, as Aslan said to one of the Kings of Narnia, being human “is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the head of the greatest emperor on earth.” Amen.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Refugees? Migrants? People?

The situation was changing so fast this week that this sermon was being updated right up until the last minute - you might prefer to listen to the podcast to hear what I actually said!

“Even the dogs,” said the woman who had come to Jesus to beg healing for her daughter, “Even the dogs get to eat the children's leftovers!”

It's always difficult to know what is going on in this story – why was Jesus so foul to the woman? Very unlike him, he's normally courteous, even to women who are no better than they should be. But here he is, in Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon, having a brief holiday, and this woman comes to him, and instead of healing her daughter, he says “Let us first feed the children. It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” In other words – bugger off, my mission is to the Jews, not to the likes of you!

At least, that's what it reads like. Of course, we don't know the tone of voice he said it in. I wonder whether, at this stage in his life, when he is obviously exhausted from so much that has gone before, he really isn't certain who he is and what is mission is. And maybe, maybe when he says that, he is wondering aloud whether he ought not to reserve his energies for his own people. And she replies that even the dogs get to eat the leftovers, and this, for him, is the voice of God, telling him that yes, he can and should heal her daughter. Which he promptly does, and when she goes home she finds her daughter peacefully asleep, with no sign of whatever had been tormenting her.

Whatever Jesus was, or was not, thinking when he confronted this woman, he did heal her daughter. He showed that His love has no boundaries. It is not just a particular race, or a particular tribe, who are God's people. It is each and every one of us.

And in our first reading, from the letter of James, we heard this: “My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don't have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, 'God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!' – if you don't give them the necessities of life? So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead.”

And in today's Old Testament reading, from Proverbs, there was this verse:
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate.”
“Or crush the afflicted at the gate”. I wonder what that reminds you of? I know what it reminds me of.

And unless you've been living under a rock for the past two months, you will know that there's a major crisis going on in Europe. Today, there are more refugees than at any time since the end of the second World War. War and famine have driven countless millions – I'm not exaggerating, there have been at least four million people who have left Syria alone – countless millions from their homes to save their lives and, they hope, find a better life elsewhere.

Roughly 3,000 people are trying to find a new home in Europe every day. Three thousand people whose home lives are so unbearable that they can't stay there any more. They confide their life savings to someone who offers to get them a safe passage, and find themselves on a rickety, overloaded boat that may or may not get them across the Mediterranean. Many, far too many, don't make it. Or they find themselves locked in the back of a lorry, again probably overcrowded, very hot, no water or sanitary facilities. And again, many die.

And if they arrive on Europe's borders, when they do, they find themselves blocked off by barbed wire fences. Not Welcome Here, is the message they get, although, to be fair, a great many countries do welcome them. Germany, for one. But it's a matter of getting there.

And many of them speak good English, so where they want to come is here. After all, if you're going to have to resit exams so that you can work as a doctor or an architect or whatever in Europe, it's a lot easier to do it in a language you already speak than to have to spend a couple of years learning German or Swedish first before you can sit the exams. Or they have family or friends who have been able to settle here.

And we don't seem to welcome them, either. They are forced to live in squalor in a makeshift camp in Calais – although there is talk about building a more permanent camp for them – starving and hopeless, having to pay their minders for the chance to try to get on a lorry, with many so desperate that they have tried to run through the tunnel, or even to swim across, and have died. Our politicians talk about “swarms of migrants”, as though they were not quite human.

And yet each and every one of them is an individual with his or her own story. And most of these stories are of hardship, of persecution, of famine, of war, of flight, of despair. They are human beings.

We call them “migrants”, lumping them all under one umbrella. The term is supposed to be neutral, less laden with emotional baggage than “refugee” or “asylum seeker”. It isn't, of course, because people then talk about “illegal immigrants” or “economic migrants”. And it's noticeable that if we Brits go to live abroad we aren't called migrants – I did the whole economic migrant thing back in the 1970s, when I went to work in Paris for some years after leaving school, but nobody called me a “migrant”, economic or otherwise – I was an expatriate! And people talked about cultural exchange, and our young people learning about different lifestyles, and so on, and it was all considered a Good Thing.

And, of course, many of your families came over here to work and contribute to our society and learn about our way of life – and have enriched this country beyond all measure! Maybe you can remember the bewilderment of arriving here, not too sure of your welcome, not too sure what life in this cold and rainy land was going to be like.

Even if someone does make it across the Channel, their problems aren't yet over. They aren't allowed to work while their claim for asylum is being processed, and although they do get an allowance, it really isn't very much. Not really enough to live on, and certainly not enough for a comfortable lifestyle. And if they are found not to be in imminent danger of death back home, they are thrown out again, and if that's on their records they can't really go and try their luck somewhere else in Europe.

I don't know what the answer long-term is. The politicians will have to work that one out between them. I think it's finally got to the stage that the political will to do this is actually there, which is a good thing. They need to work out some way, perhaps, of screening migrants before they get stuck outside barbed-wire borders, or locked out of railway stations, or forced to live in squalid camps.

But what can we do? You and me? Well, first and foremost, of course, we can pray for them. We can pray for those forced to leave their countries, those forced to hand over large sums of money for very dubious means of travel, those forced to risk their lives again and again to try to get to safety.

We can stop believing most of what we read in the Daily Mail, and read round from various sources – the BBC is relatively impartial, and it's not difficult to find first-hand accounts from people who have visited the camps themselves. Obviously we mustn't be naïve – while most people are genuine refugees who only want to find a safe place where they can live and work and bring up their families, there will be a few rotten apples. We know there are, of course – look at the traffikers who are responsible for so many, many deaths from sinking ships and overcrowded lorries, and who charge people for the “privilege” of breaking their ankles or worse trying to get on trains. But by and large, they are ordinary people like you and me whose lives have been disrupted by war or famine.

And we can donate. There are various organisations, mostly in Calais, who collect donations of things like toothbrushes, tents and tracksuit bottoms, to distribute to those in need. There doesn't yet seem to be a regular dedicated place where you can drop off your donation, but there are various charities who will see to it that a cash donation goes where it will do most good. And there are occasional “pop-up” collection centres – there's one in Hackney, but it's only open today, so not much good to us; their van will be going over tomorrow. And, of course, our local food banks are always needing donations, even if it's only a cheap packet of pasta or tin of meatballs. Many of those who use their services are refugees.

What we can't do is nothing.  "Even the dogs get to eat the children's leftovers".  " What good is there in your saying to them, 'God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!' – if you don't give them the necessities of life?

It is our problem, because these are people for whom Christ died. And I don't know about you, but I don't want him to be saying to me “I was a refugee at that camp in Calais, and you did nothing to help.” Do you?