It seems very hard to imagine, but 100 years ago today, the guns on the Western Front, from the Belgian Coast to Swiss border, fell silent. Soldiers put aside their rifles and the paraphernalia of war, and stepped warily out of trenches and dugouts into a world of peace. On a section of the line, an American sound recordist caught the moment the guns stopped firing, and the Imperial War Museum has posted the soundtrack on its website. Right up to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the artillery was laying down a fearsome barrage on the enemy, but as that hour struck, silence reigns, and within 30 seconds, birdsong can be heard. As humanity’s violence ebbs away, so the natural world reasserts itself. As humanity’s destructive urges are curbed, so God’s way of living returns.
This morning’s readings capture that as well. The remarkable passage from Jonah, where God changes his mind, describes a city-wide act of penitence that has world-altering effects. But Nineveh is no ordinary city. It was the capital of the Assyrian empire, situated on the east bank of the Tigris river, in what is now Northern Iraq. Mosul is the nearest modern city today. The Assyrians were renowned as the most ruthless people of the ancient near east. They were a by-word for excessive violence and vicious destruction, so as we read that God intends to destroy them, we feel a frisson of hope – they deserve everything that they are going to get. But God, who is always merciful, offers them the chance of escape if they repent – and they do, and God changes his mind and does not destroy them.
On this Remembrance Sunday, we read how Israel’s greatest enemy humbled itself before God, and was forgiven. On this Remembrance Sunday, we read that a nation can turn away from violence and bloodshed, and walk humbly in God’s ways. On this Remembrance Sunday, long-term enemies are transformed by the grace and mercy of almighty God. That is our starting point, that is what we have to cling to from the outset: God will forgive those who repent of violence and hatred, and he will transform the lives of our worst enemies because of his love and mercy.
That is why the Allies, in 1918, fervently believed in the potential of the League of Nations. They were exhausted by war, torn apart by grief and destruction and devastated by the flu epidemic that followed hard on the heels of the armistice. Whole rural communities had been wiped out, city streets emptied of young men who never returned, the countries’ finances in tatters, so that even returning soldiers couldn’t find anywhere decent to live. Peace was the only concern for the general population, and a way of living together that would not cause such a conflict again.
Alas, that hope was to prove vain, with the rise of nationalist and extreme political ideologies, that morphed from isolationist rhetoric to ideas of national purity to expansionist dreams of dominance of neighbours, and the whole awful cycle happened again. It is that repetition within human history, that inability of humanity really to sort itself out once and for all, that leads the writer to the Hebrews to contrast that with Christ’s once and for all sacrifice of himself on the cross. What God does once is effective for all time. It takes humanity a lot longer to catch up.
So how do we live, how do we organise ourselves, so that cataclysmic wars do not recur? How can lessons be learnt and past mistakes avoided? The Syrians haven’t learnt that yet, the people of Yemen are on the end of a dreadful replaying of geopolitical violence. Where can some good news be found, some Gospel?
Curiously, given all the passages about peace, about beating swords into ploughshares, about blessed are the peacemakers, we have read this morning the simple tale of Jesus calling Simon & Andrew, John & James, from their fishing businesses to follow him and “to catch people”. Why? The Gospel challenge is that it is in discipleship that the world shall discover how to live together, it is in following God With Us that we shall learn the way of God and be able to live it out. These four rough fishermen drop everything, there and then, to follow this itinerant preacher, who promises to show them the Kingdom of Heaven. And they have three years to watch him at work before they themselves will front the engine of the Kingdom of Heaven – the Church. And from those three years of hands-on observation, they are expected to have absorbed sufficient for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
What have they seen? They have seen this Jesus touch lepers to heal them, he has talked with Gentiles and Samaritans about the love of God and his power to transform. He has fed, not just a few, but thousands with enough to spare. They have heard parables that bend their prejudices back into Godly shapes, they have stood by while Jesus went toe to toe with Pharisees, Sadducees and other religious professionals and left them speechless. And then they have watched him turn away from violent resistance in the Garden of Gethsemane, endure torture in silence, express forgiveness as nails were driven into his hands and feet, show mercy to a penitent criminal and die in pitch darkness, acknowledged as the Son of God by a gentile soldier. Buried in a rich man’s tomb, they find him resurrected, alive for ever, challenging them to take his words and ways to the whole world. Ignited by the Holy Spirit, they do just that, turning the world back up the way it should always have been, and we are their successors.
Our discipleship, our close living out of the life of Christ, will be a means of maintaining peace, increasing peace, refusing the mistakes of the past. We have to be the current Jesus, touching lepers, bringing together those who are at enmity with each other. Our nation is split in two currently, in a seemingly unbridgeable way. The faithful disciples of Christ must work hard to ensure that narrow-minded nationalism does not gain a foothold in our community, and that principles of inclusion and social justice are at the forefront of the way we organise ourselves. We need to affirm visibly and practically that all are welcome here, amongst us, whatever they think, however they feel, whatever they believe, because we believe that all are loved by God in an equally generous way, so who are we to separate anyone from that divine love. If our worshipping community is open and welcoming, refusing hatred and bigotry and challenging unjust practices and attitudes, then that openness and welcome will spill out into the streets where we live, into the places where we work, and take Christ’s all inclusive love there.
This weekend happens also to be the 80th anniversary of Kristalnacht, the day that Nazi anti-semitic violence was fully unleashed on the Jews of Germany. Those anti-semitic sentiments can still be found today, amazingly – why, only last week a synagogue was murderously attacked in the USA, by someone spouting exactly the same rhetoric that was prevalent in Germany and Italy in 1938. There is no place for such thoughts, let alone such actions in our contemporary world. It was a joy yesterday to share in worship at Richmond Synagogue, as they marked on their Sabbath the centenary of the Armistice. But to be part of that service, your name has to be on a list of guests, and the locked gate carefully opened to let you in, for fear of violence and outrage. That happened at every synagogue in our land yesterday, and is a blight on our country. The Jewish Community is wonderfully welcoming, sophisticated and eat together like kings, and yet there is an underlying fear in all their hearts.
The winter night shelter project is another practical way in which the faith communities are expressing their discipleship, as they welcome that too painfully seen group of people, the rough sleepers, to the 7 centres across the borough. Lives are transformed by this project, not just saved in the cold of winter. Pray for the project, volunteer if you can (especially if you can do a Saturday night), donate socks and gloves and woolly hats, or send money direct to Glass Door. 3 primary skools are involved in feeding the homeless guests at St John the Divine on Thursday nights & St Matthias on a Saturday night – young lives influenced in good discipleship by this project. Therein lies the future of social inclusion, surely, and therein lies the future of peace.
It is easy to despair on days like this, to be ground down by the enormity of the sacrifice those millions of men, women and children made during two world wars and other conflicts. But the simple Gospel message of faithful discipleship offers us a practical way of drawing all society into the loving, peaceful ways of God. Penitence for past errors, learning the lessons of the past, and practicing inclusion and welcome passionately and realistically – that is God’s way of bringing this wonderful world into the ways of love and peace that he intends for it.
Christmas Market and Santa’s Grotto
Come and enjoy our Christmas Market at the Barn Church on Saturday 24th November
Craft Activities, Food & Wine, Stall Magician, Music & Carols, Café, Mulled Wine, Raffle, Toy Stall Entertainer
Come to the Kew Gardens Hotel at 8pm on Thursday 8th October for “Pub Theology: informal conversations”.
For more information, contact the Vicar
There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of a man who attends church for the first time, and gets into conversation with the vicar after the service. The vicar asks him what he does, he replies that he is a bit of a musician, so the vicar invites him to bring his guitar along the next Sunday and play for the congregation. When he had finished his solo acoustic account of In the presence of the Lord, the congregation realised that Eric Clapton had moved into their village. Fully knowing who someone is can take a while.
When we read a Bible passage today, we read with at least 2000 years of reading behind us, and more if we are reading from the Hebrew scriptures. Thus, when we hear the extract from Isaiah, it rings various bells in our minds, which set off other trains of thought, and we swiftly move from a 6th BCE prophet to Jesus being mocked by Roman guards before his crucifixion.
But take a step back, and try to put yourself in the shoes of a Jew listening to this text for the first time. Where was it first heard? Who was talking? And to whom? Modern scholarship dates this text to the Babylonian exile, a 70 year period when the majority of the Jewish nation was enslaved by the Babylonians, to work across what is now modern Iraq. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, their king lead away in chains with his eyes put out. Everything was finished. And then, as they gathered to talk of the old country, and to recite psalms together in a place that was approaching holy – by water, outside the Gentile city – this prophet got up and uttered these words. In the first person. Speaking with God’s authority.
Who is the servant? Why does the servant suffer? Surely the servant is innocent – how can this be? Jewish theology at the time would blame the people themselves for all the catastrophes that had befallen them. They had not kept the law, they had strayed to foreign gods, they had disobeyed God and formed alliances with Gentile nations, they had not trusted in their God to keep them safe. But a new generation is growing up, one which was not part of those who had abandoned their God, and they surely are innocent, yet suffering. They must learn patience, they must find again the ways of their God and walk in them, and they will be justified. So, the first answer to the question, “who is the servant”, is the nation of Israel, reborn in synagogue worship and the rediscovery of the Law and Scripture, in exile.
Scroll forward a few generations, the people are back in their own land, and this passage is read again, in the newly rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Who is the servant now? Is everything written by Isaiah fulfilled by their return? No, things are still difficult, Israel is not paradise – there must be a different interpretation of this servant text – there must be a servant, an individual, who will fulfil all these words – and a Messiah is born. So, answer number two is, the Messiah.
Scroll forward again to the time of Jesus, and as his followers watch his miracles and hear his words, as they listen to him preach and teach, then watch him suffer innocently, their minds are turned again to this text, and they see in Jesus this Messiah – and when Jesus asks them about what people are saying about him, they can say for themselves that they think he is the Messiah.
Fine and dandy, you think, but then Jesus proceeds to paint a very different picture of what the Messiah is and does. The disciples, nurtured on a messianic theology of deliverance and independence, reject what Jesus is saying, to the extent that Jesus has to use the same language with them that he used in the wilderness as he was being tempted – the disciples have become the tempter, and Jesus must resist them, and teach them the true meaning of Messiahship.
And that meaning is hard. Jesus talks in terms of a life of suffering, carrying around with us the means of our own execution. This isn’t remotely comforting, nor will it drive out the Romans, but it will lead the disciples into the mind of God. As they look back, post Easter, on the terrible things that happened and then look at the resurrected Jesus, sat with them beside Lake Galilee or in the upper room, they see their God in action in the most radical way. A God who loves extremely – they can see the marks of that love, the nail prints in his palms, the gash in his side, the imprint of the thorns on his brow – and this Jesus they thought they knew, this Messiah they thought they understood, has taken them somewhere completely different. And now they must love in the same way, so that the whole world can understand and meet and know the God who loves them to death and beyond.
We still today have to answer the question that Jesus put to his disciples. Who do we say that Jesus is? He is certainly not the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of our childhood, or the baby who never cries in the Christmas carol. We have heard him today treat his most loyal disciple as the devil incarnate. Last week he used the term “dog” of a Gentile woman in not so friendly banter. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he would berate Amazon for not contributing properly to the nation’s wealth in their taxes and condemn the employment practices of modern industry.
Today, where would we find our Jesus? Is there room for him at work? If he did come to your workplace this week, how would he react to what is going on? And how would you explain his radical love to your colleagues? In our homes, where is Jesus? On a shelf, with our other books about religion? And if he wandered in here, what would he make of us? And could we possibly sit down and eat with him?
As the concept of the suffering servant evolved into a Messiah, who then overturned all those preconceptions with his death-defying love, so may our understanding of the Christ, and our image of the living God, inspire us to live and to love as he did, that this world may be transformed into his likeness and all come to see his glory for what it really is – a life lived for others.
We have a new baby in the family – hooray! And she is the sweetest little thing, quite the loveliest baby there has ever been, apart from her big sister, and her mother when she was born, and our other daughter, who is, of course, pushing for parental affection and before you can say “Jack Robinson” you are in a King Lear situation and the world falls apart around you. And that is just within the immediate family.
What happens, asks the writer James, if you do that in church? You betray the God who loved you in Christ Jesus, who showed no favouritism, and redeemed us all through his death and resurrection.
And what is more, James adds, if you favour the rich, you are toadying up to the very people who are making life difficult for the Church and especially for the poor.
Aha, you say, in the Gospel passage today, Jesus does appear to be favouring the Jews over the Gentile woman who comes beseeching him to heal her daughter. Correct, but Jesus does heal the woman’s daughter because she is not prepared to give up, because she is prepared to accept crumbs from the God of love – and those crumbs are sufficient to restore her daughter to fullness of life. Would that we had that much faith – the things we could achieve for God would be astonishing.
And then there is the sign language healing of the profoundly deaf man – an astonishingly gracious act of personalised healing, designed so that he would be involved in the process, understand what Jesus was proposing, and with his faith, bring about the healing that was required and desired.
Plenty to talk about, but it doesn’t really join up. The children this morning are concentrating on the healing of the blind man – they can play seeing and remembering games, blind man’s buff and all sorts, and learn just how precious sight is. But what was wrong with the Gentile woman’s daughter? All we know is that she had an “unclean spirit”, which could mean anything from bipolar to epilepsy, and everything in between. Whatever she was suffering with, it limited her life, and needed to be sorted out. In Jesus, her mother knew she had found the person who could do just that, but race and culture and religion seemed to block the way. Jesus’s first answer is not an outright “no”, just a re-affirmation that his mission is to the Jews first. The mother’s cracking response, spat back at Jesus more in frustration than in anger, demonstrates a parent’s visceral campaign for a child’s wellbeing, as well as playing the game of cross-cultural insult and counter-thrust.
But in the healing of her daughter, the mother gets more than crumbs. Her daughter is healed immediately, at a distance – no need for touch or words, not even for actions to explain what is going on – Jesus simply says that her daughter is better, sends her on her way and returns to the recalcitrant people of Israel – who, for their healing, will need every part of it explained, as Jesus has to for the profoundly deaf man. The Gentile daughter receives the full grace of God in complete healing, everything that the profoundly deaf Jewish man receives – this is radical stuff.
We are not in the business of receiving or handing out children’s crumbs. We worship together in the full grace of God, each one of us a complete recipient of all of God’s incalculable love and generosity. In this feast of bread and wine, God gives us himself, to share with one another, openly and fully. We cannot withhold that from anyone.
As a consequence, we cannot be satisfied with doling out crumbs, but of freely offering the totality of the love of God. This covers everything, from welcome to coffee, from teaching to prayer, to the Peace and to our care for each other through the week. We will not do theology lite: rather, we will dig deep into the Word and stretch our minds and hearts. We will pray with a fervour which goes beyond formulae and into the mind of God. Our welcome will be second to none, gently bringing people across the threshold with love and grace. The Peace will be sincere, the children included in all our endeavours as a unit with their families – there won’t be something for the children, and something for the adults: it will be a sizeable chunk of the presence of God for everyone. Conversation, music, silence, embrace – all will be of the best and the deepest.
We have invited back to church next Sunday all those families who had a child or children baptised over the past 12 months – that’s the start of a season of invitation – everything we do will be suitable to invite anyone along for the first time. Harvest Festival, St Luke’s Patronal Festival, All Saints, Remembrance, Advent, Christmas – it’s all lined up for us. Let’s seize the opportunity, bring people in, and include them from the start in God’s amazing love. This will be fun!