Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Happy Easter - Cheers!

A theme in the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection on Easter Day is that at first he isn’t recognised.

In the Gospel of Luke we have my favourite post Resurrection story. It is of two disciples walking along the road from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. They are joined by a stranger. The stranger is in fact Jesus. They tell him about what has happened but they do not recognise him. It is only later when he joins them for a meal and as he breaks bread and says a prayer that they recognise Jesus. (The Emmaus story linking with the Last Supper.)

In John’s Gospel John 20: 1 – 18 we have the story of Mary Magdalene going to the garden containing Jesus’ tomb. She finds the tomb empty. Then she encounters someone she takes to be the gardener.

14 At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’
She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).

Notice it’s only when Jesus calls Mary by name that she recognises him. They’d spoken before. But it is only when he uses her name that the penny drops.

This reminds us of something Jesus says earlier in John’s Gospel, chapter 10 where Jesus talks of himself as the Good Shepherd. In that chapter Jesus says that his sheep know his voice.

14 ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me

It is not surprising that when Mary hears Jesus’ voice calling her name she recognises him.

To be called by name, to be known by your name is a very important human experience. There is a big difference in how we feel when, for example someone might say “Good morning David. Please help me with this task” and “Oi you. Help me with this task”

There was a very surreal 1960s TV programme called “The Prisoner”. It is not a programme I ever got into. The series follows a British former secret agent who is abducted and held prisoner in a mysterious coastal village resort where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job. Everyone is known by a number. And the catch phrase of the central character was “I am not a number I am a free man”. This suggests to me the importance of us being known by name. Even though he was referred to as a number, in his mind he still had his name and hence was a free man.

Jesus knows our names. Just as he knew Mary’s name and called her by name. He calls us by name too.

When people are called by their name they no longer feel excluded, they feel included. They feel known. They feel cared for. They feel loved. On the other hand when nobody knows our name or calls our name we feel excluded from the community.

The Easter community that is the Church is a community whose members have heard the Good Shepherd’s voice calling them by name. We join with Mary in being enfolded in Jesus’ love, of being enveloped by his presence. And because we know how it feels to be called by name by Jesus, we seek to call others into community by name as well. From the newest person in our congregation to those who have been part of the family for many years, we who are the Easter community know the importance of calling people by their names so that they feel part of the community of Christ as well.

An American sitcom of the 1980s was called “Cheers”. It was set almost exclusively in a bar in Boston called “Cheers”. And each week the various characters – misfits and loners for the most part – would share their news and stories and feel part of something.

The theme song of that programme could have been written about the idea of being included in the Easter people community. Of being called by name and being part of that community:

Sometimes you want to go to a place
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You want to be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

That theme song should be a template for how churches should be.

Churches should be where people are known by name, where there is a sense that we are all the same, we all have troubles, we all fall short but we are welcomed – by Christ, by name.

Being called by name into the Easter people community gives many a sense of identity, a sense of being cared for, a sense of belonging. Something that so many in our world today lack elsewhere. But most of all it gives a sense of hope.

This blog is adapted from a sermon preached on Easter Day 2015 at Studley Methodist Church.

The Cheers theme song was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo and performed by Gary Portnoy.

The Cheers image came from www.Huffingtonpost.com

Saturday, 4 April 2015

I believe in the power of Easter. That's a fact!

It is strange but I have more memories of Christmas than of Easter. And yet as a Christian, Easter is the most important festival.

That said, some Easter memories are really special to me. There was the time we were on holiday in Bruges in Belgium and were awakened early on Easter Day by church bells. There was a time staying in North Wales with friends in a holiday cottage (Easter Day was made memorable because we woke to the sight of snow on Snowdon in the distance and, sadly, a truly dire Easter service at an Anglican church in Caernarvon.) And there was a time when I preached at a service at Shrewsbury United Reformed Church on Easter Day. And that leads me to my most memorable Easter memory.

The most memorable Easter wasn’t Easter Day as such – though it was (in the church calendar) still Easter.

It was 1991 and we had a weekend in Yorkshire. On the Sunday after Easter we went to church in Ripon Cathedral. To this day I do not recall what was said by the preacher or what else was in the service that I found so powerful. But I know that on that Sunday, for the first time I truly believed in the Easter story and the power of the resurrection. And my response was to become a Local Preacher (a lay preacher) in the Methodist Church. Starting a journey that has led me to become an ordained minister.

The Easter story – Jesus coming back to life after dying on Good Friday – is the biggest challenge for people to accept about the Christian faith. And yet that is the most important part of our faith for it is only by believing and accepting that fact, that the rest of the faith falls in to place.

And for Christians, the Resurrection is a fact. And to believe that fact is the most important part of our faith.

The sceptical find it hard to accept it as fact but nevertheless, I believe it as fact – even if I might not understand the how and why of the Resurrection.

Charles Coulson, who was one of Nixon’s “Watergate Seven”, said this;

“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Everyone was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”

And I believe it as fact because Jesus’ people, those who believe in him do extraordinary things. Yes, I know, lots of people do wonderful things too. But Jesus’ people are Easter people and we should be empowered by the Resurrection which is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us.

During the marking of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz in January this year, I became aware of the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz.

When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted.

In that Good Friday Hell of Auschwitz, Maximillian, a Beloved Disciple of Christ exhibited the power of Easter. Love conquered the hatred.

That is the power of Easter. Love conquers hate. Love conquers death.

Christ is risen! He has risen indeed! Alleluia!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

How would John Wesley vote?

One of the challenges that face a church minister today is trying to connect the teachings of the Christian faith with today’s world. And, more specifically, trying to consider the world through the lens of the Christian faith. In short “What would Jesus do?”

(I am always slightly wary of the WWJD movement. Especially when it branches off in some odd directions such as “What car would Jesus drive?”)

There are some Christians who rely solely on the Bible as a basis for forming their view of the world today. It is a limited approach but can work such as when confronted with a menu in a French restaurant for example.

Picture the scene. A fundamentalist Christian enters a French restaurant and is handed the menu. One choice is "Cuisses de grenouilles." A quick consultation with an English French dictionary identified said "Cuisses de grenouilles" as “Frogs legs”. Now our fundamentalist friend isn’t sure whether he should eat those so he now consults his Bible and there in Leviticus chapter 11 he finds this:

9 ‘“Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. 10 But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales – whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water – you are to regard as unclean”

This means for our fundamentalist gourmet frogs legs are off the menu (even if served in a delicious tomato and garlic sauce accompanied by a crisp Chablis.)

However, there are many things the Bible is silent on, so what to do? If the Bible is silent does this mean we should ignore the problem? No. We can’t ignore the world around us so we have to find another approach.

One such approach has been termed the “Wesleyan quadrilateral”. This sounds like some odd country dance (or even a move in “Mornington Crescent” – the legendary board game in Radio 4’s “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue.”) in fact it is an explanation of how many Christians (consciously or unconsciously) approach moral and spiritual dilemmas.

John Wesley the founder of Methodism used four different sources in coming to theological conclusions. These sources were first referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in 1964 by theologian/scholar Albert C. Outler in a collection of Wesley's works edited by Outler entitled simply John Wesley.

The four sources are:

1. Scripture
2. Tradition
3. Reason
4. Experience

For most (if not all) Christians, Scripture is considered the primary source and standard for Christian doctrine. Tradition is experience and the witness of development and growth of the faith through the past centuries and in many nations and cultures. Experience is the individual's understanding and appropriating of the faith in the light of his or her own life. Through Reason the individual Christian brings to bear on the Christian faith discerning and cogent thought. These four elements taken together bring the individual Christian to a mature and fulfilling understanding of the Christian faith and the required response of worship and service.

Source: A Dictionary for United Methodists, Alan K. Waltz, Copyright 1991, Abingdon Press.

A practical application of the Wesleyan quadrilateral might be towards whether people should be employed on zero hours contracts. (Please bear in mind what follows is a very simplified summary and application!)

If we start with Scripture, unsurprisingly there is nothing specific. However, in one parable, sometimes called the Parable of the workers in the vineyard, we see a radical approach to the hiring of labour on a daily basis. (Regardless of whether someone works for 1 hour or 11 hours they are paid the same. Jesus told the story to illustrate his point that in God’s kingdom “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”)

What does Tradition of the church say? Church tradition / Church history might point to how the Church has viewed employer / employee relations throughout the centuries. Has the Church employed people? If so on what basis? Has the Church commented on how employers should treat workers?

Experience – it may be that the individual has no direct experience of the exact situation but that wouldn’t stop them applying their own faith / beliefs to help them understand. “Didn’t Jesus say that Christians are to “Share Good News (the message and values of Jesus) with the poor? To stand up for the oppressed? And challenge unfairness?” This is a classic “What would Jesus do?” situation.

Finally Reason. In our example it would be about thinking it through. “Would I want to have a zero hours contract? Could I support my family if that was the only job I could get? On the other hand maybe for some people zero hours contracts work if they want flexible working.” (I find that Experience and Reason tend to overlap.)

Having worked through this then a Christian may be better placed to give an opinion.

Faced as we are in this country with having to decide who to vote for on 7th May, applying the Wesleyan quadrilateral to the key policies of the main parties might help. It is a sort of “Who would Jesus vote for?”

It would be wrong of me to say how my use of the WQ has helped me decide – though those of you who know me may have some idea. All I will say is it won’t be UKIP!

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Where does the path lead?

Last weekend I went for a walk in the beautiful countryside near where we live. I was accompanied by my wife and a good friend of ours.

My wife had discovered the walk a few weeks ago and had said she’d like us to do it together as it was interesting and went through some lovely countryside. She wasn’t wrong.

She had found the walk in a book of walks we have and she had set out on her own one Saturday when I was busy elsewhere. The book comes with some detailed maps and all the paths are clearly marked so it wasn’t an issue but as we did the walk, with Anne leading the way, I realised something about going on walks. As much as I enjoy walks I begin to feel slightly uncomfortable if I don’t know where I am or don’t know where I am going.

Looking back I realise that I often have this feeling on a walk. I don’t why I should feel that way but I do. It’s not anything to do with not having the map or guide book, for Anne is a far better navigator than I am. I am always happy to let her lead the way. But I just have this slight unease if I am not sure of where we are going and where we are.

It is not as if I have ever got lost on a walk and that has left an effect. Maybe it is more about wanting to be in control and having unease when someone else is leading the way?

The irony is that like all Christians I am on a way of faith that does not come with a detailed map. Yes there are pointers, but for the most part I walk the way, only knowing in general terms where I am headed. But I am comfortable with this. It is only when out walking that I need a detailed map, a set of instructions and the assurance of knowing where I am at a given moment. Faith wise, I am happy to go with the flow.

One phrase that has been used since the time of Jesus to describe the journey of faith we are on is “the Way”. So much so, that the earliest Christians (living perhaps 30 or 40 years after Jesus) were known as “people of the Way.” It is not a description used very often now which I think is a shame for it is a good discretion of what it is like to live the Christian life I think.

A Bible passage that I often use when I conduct a funeral is from John chapter 14. 1 - 6

John 14:1-6New International Version - UK (NIVUK)

14 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.’
5 Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

6 Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Thomas presumably would have been happier on his journey of faith if he had detailed instructions. But Jesus’ words are a reminder that faith doesn’t come with clear road map. All we have is the assurance of the destination.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Us and Them

One thing human beings do, time and again, is divide up humanity into them and us. At one level this is harmless. After all if there were no “Us” and “Them” rugby matches, cricket matches or football matches for example would be pretty pointless.

And in politics of course there is “Us” and “Them” all the time – even though it is often said that it is often hard to differentiate between the policies of the main parties nowadays.

So at one level “Us” and “them” doesn’t matter. But human nature being what it is “us” and “them” can quickly move from being a bit of fun to something far more serious.

Holocaust Memorial Day is a time for everyone to pause to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. On HMD we can honour the survivors of these regimes and challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today.

HMD is a time when we seek to learn the lessons of the past and to recognise that genocide does not just take place on its own, it’s a steady process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented. We’re fortunate here in the UK; we are not at risk of genocide. However, discrimination has not ended, nor has the use of the language of hatred or exclusion. There is still much to do to create a safer future and HMD is an opportunity to start this process.

Given that 27 January 2015 marks not only the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, but 2015 is also the 20th anniversary of the Genocide in Srebrenica, it is important that memory is at the heart of the 2015 commemoration.

The Holocaust of the Second World War was of course based very much on “Us” and “Them”. The Nazis oversaw the murder of millions of people who weren’t one of us. For the most part of course Jews. But gypsys, homosexuals, people of different political viewpoints, or nationalities deemed to be racially inferior e.g. Russians, were also murdered.

Sadly, there have been many other examples of genocide since then all based on “Us” and “Them”

Whilst genocide as a concept has only been defined since the end of the Second World War, there have been many examples of what could be termed genocide in human history. And human history is littered with plenty of examples of the tribalism and hatred that can lead on to genocide if it is not contained.

For Holocaust memorial Sunday, the suggested Bible passage was the story of Jesus encountering a Samaritan woman at the well. (John chapter 4) In the passage Jesus is dealing with a woman from a different culture and ethnic group to him. And as such the passage tells us a great deal about how as Christians we are supposed to relate to people.

The setting of this passage in Samaria would have been scandalous to many in the first century because in this passage Jesus openly challenges and breaks open two boundaries. The boundary between the “chosen people” (Jews) and “rejected people” (Samaritans) and boundaries between male and female.

This passage in other words is all about “Us” and “Them”.

Samaritans were outcasts as far as Jewish people were concerned. The Samaritans claimed to have a common heritage with Jewish people in that Samaritans claimed to be descended from Jacob just as Jews did. However, the Assyrians who conquered the area around 700 years before Jesus, brought with them colonists who intermarried with the Samaritans. Therefore Samaritans were not thought of as pure Jews.

Jesus then as a Jew would have been expected to avoid contact with a Samaritan. And similarly Jewish convention said that a Jewish man would not have contact with a woman unless she was his wife or a close relative. In this passage Jesus is ripping up the rule book! Dealing with a Samaritan and a woman.

Jesus is treating the Samaritan woman – and later the Samaritan villagers the woman brings to meet Jesus – as full human beings. He treats them as people who are worthy recipients of the grace of God. Not as despised enemies from whom to fear contamination.

The preoccupation with protecting boundaries between the chosen and despised peoples is not just limited to the Jewish / Samaritan conflict of the first century. Throughout human history people and nations have defined themselves over and against other groups.

The history of race relations in the USA and South Africa, the notion of racial purity in Nazi Germany, the ethnic wars that have come and gone and sometimes come again in the Middle East, African, Asia and Europe, all have their roots in the same fears that divided Jews from Samaritans. The fear of contamination. “Us” and “Them”.

What this passage does is to summon those of us who seek to follow Jesus to be different from the ways of the world. We’re summoned to not be like the world. We’re summoned to not take on society’s views of who is acceptable and who is not. As followers of Christ we are to show there is no “us” and “them”.

As Paul reminds us in Colossians 3 in Christ

there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

In other words if we are in Christ, if we are seeking to be like Christ, there is no “Us” and “them”

Sadly, we know only too well that although we as Christians try to follow that teaching, the world does not. And, if truth be told, there are Christians who are more than happy to see the divisions in our world.

I profess to not knowing enough about Islam. And I profess that nowadays I do not know any Muslims. It was different 30 years ago when I was at university. Then among people I got to know on my course and became friendly with were several Jews, Muslims and Hindus as well as a mix of those who came from a Christian background or no faith.

And when I look at our wedding photographs it is a joy to see that cross section of society there. Sadly over time we have lost touch. But I have not lost that recognition that those people of different cultural background and faith could put aside differences and be friends.

Although I don’t know much about Islam, my experience 30 years ago showed me that just as most Christians are caring loving people so are most Muslims. So are most Jews. So are most people FULL STOP.

When we see images of extremists murdering journalists or people in a supermarket we can start to believe that is how the world is. But the world for the most part is not like that.

Just after the attacks in Paris the other week, I was saddened to see two surveys of Jewish people in France and this country. Both surveys found that Jewish people feel threatened and feel that anti-Semitism is on the rise.

No doubt this in response to the Paris attacks and certainly in London Jewish schools and synagogues have been given police protection.

And yet at the same time Muslims feel threatened too. Many feel that the press labels them all the same way.

Last Monday evening (19th January) BBC’s “The One Show” carried a report from Manchester which showed how there some Muslims and Jews are coming together.

Two women – one Jewish and one Muslim – who were members of the Manchester Muslim and Jewish forum were shown having a meal together. And the Muslim woman said “Both communities need to be together. Our faiths have so much in common and we’re all Mancunians.”

In the interview Rabbi Silverman and Imam Abid were interviewed. And a telling remark was made by the Rabbi. “Anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia are two sides of the same coin. Do you agree Imam Abid?” “Yes I do.”

And that is the point. The hatred engendered in our society by terrorists like those in Paris isn’t just targeted at one group. It is hatred that encompasses all people. And it is up to all people to stand up to hatred but not with more violence but with love and by seeking to understand other cultures and beliefs.

Martin Luther King, a man who knew a great deal about “us” and “them” once said this:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

We are called to reflect the light of Christ into the world. To show people his love.

Or to put it another way:

“This life is about what we can do. Whether we’re doing something for our community or something bigger. We make the world the way it is.” Kemal Pervanić, survivor of the Omarska Concentration Camp, Bosnia

This blog is an abbreviated version of a sermon preached at Central Methodist Church Chippenham on Sunday 25th January. Holocaust Memorial Sunday. It draws on material found at the Holocaust Memorial Trust web site http://hmd.org.uk/ and also material produced by the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Zoop, zoop, zoop, clean - there's something in the water

Over the last few weeks Radio 2 have been playing a song called “Something in the water” by American Country artist Carrie Underwood. As is often the way with a new song I hear it in the background and don’t pay much attention. But after a few times of hearing it I realised that this is clearly a Christian song. And I don’t mean a song which has theological lyrics. This is a Christian song.

Now for my American friends who read this blog I need to explain. Unlike in the USA we don’t have Christian music charts in the UK and there is only really one Christian music radio station. Radio 2 is a BBC national station playing (mainly) older hits with some new music that appeals to its core audience (those of us who are middle aged!) So for Radio 2 to play a song like this is very unusual. Radio 2 does play a smattering of country music (and in fact there is a weekly country music show) but for a country song to get wide airplay is unusual and for a country Christian song to get wide airplay is virtually unknown.
I’ve no idea why this song is getting the airplay it is but it is.

Anyway, back to the song. I think the words that first made me realise that this wasn’t just another country song were these:

And now I'm singing along to amazing grace
Can't nobody wipe this smile off my face

“Amazing grace” was clearly a reference to John Newton’s hymn of the same name (which incidentally became a hit for Judy Collins in the 1970s).

Having pricked up my ears I made a point of listening to the lyrics carefully the next time the track was played. And I was surprised to hear a song about someone who had been having a difficult time being encouraged to change their life and give it to Christ.

Then somebody said what I'm saying to you
Open my eyes and told me truth
He said: just a little faith and it'll all get better
So I followed that preacher man down to the river and now I'm changed
And now I'm stronger

Then having mulled it over for a few days the central character of the song realises that she needs to be saved

Then it hit me like a lightning late one night
I was all out of hoping, all out of fight
Couldn't fight back my tears so I fell on my knees
Saying God if you're there come and rescue me
Felt love pouring down from above
Got washed in the water, washed in the blood and now I'm changed

And it is this verse that interests me as there is a great mix of what is going on in baptism.

In one of the intriguing passages of scripture about Jesus we have the account of Jesus’ baptism. All four gospels have an account – though the accounts in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels are the fullest. In Matthew and Mark we are told how Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist had been

“ … preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

And when we read this passage Carrie Underwood’s song comes together. The character in the song recognises the need for forgiveness, is saved and then is baptised

Got washed in the water, washed in the blood and now I'm changed

A few years ago, our German friends were staying with us. They came to church on Sunday morning and it so happened that I had a Christening.

They aren’t regular church goers but they did attend Lutheran church when they were younger. So were interested to see if a Methodist Christening would be different to a Lutheran. And after the service Peter talked to me about the Christening.

“It’s very similar to that in the Lutheran church. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 3 lots of water. Zoop, zoop, zoop clean!

But John the Baptist states there is more. Although he helps people to repent and, in baptising them helps them to symbolically be washed clean of their sin, John says

7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in our lives; a presence that empowers and instructs, a presence that comforts and corrects. Like baptism, Christ did not need the Holy Spirit to come upon him. He was always filled with the Spirit. But we need the Holy Spirit. It is that Spirit that helps us be what God wants us to be.

We need to be baptized by water but we also need to be baptized by the Holy Spirit.

And that’s where I think the song is clever as although there is talk about being washed clean the title “Something in the water” alludes to there being more. “Felt love pouring down from above” is the something more. It’s God’s love, God’s grace flowing through the Holy Spirit to make the character feel stronger and free from what has been holding her down up to now.

And now I'm singing along to amazing grace
Can't nobody wipe this smile off my face
Got joy in my heart, angels on my side
Thank God All Mighty I saw the light
Going to look ahead, no turning back, live everyday, give it all that I have
Trusted someone bigger than me
Ever since the day that I believed I am changed

Some sound theology in a pop song. In fact I think there are some hints of Wesleyan theology

All people need to be saved.
All people can be saved.
All people can know they are saved.
All people can be saved to the uttermost

There really is something in the water!

Thursday, 15 January 2015

And then they came for me

Just over a week ago two terrorists entered the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris and murdered journalists and during their escape a police officer. Subsequently others were killed and, in an incident that was apparently related, another terroist murdered another police officer and people taken hostage in a Jewish supermarket.

The terrorists claimed to be Muslims and they claimed their attack on the newspaper was in response to the publication of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

And presumably the attack on the Jewish supermarket was because of the virulent anti semitic feelings of some Muslims towards Jews.

That certainly seems to be the understanding of many French Jews. News reports earlier this week for example this one on the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-30790407 suggest that many French Jews feel threatened and are considering moving to Israel.

On 14th January The Independent newspaper carried a report saying that the majority of British Jews also feel threatened and that they have no future in this country. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-new-antisemitism-majority-of-british-jews-feel-they-have-no-future-in-uk-says-new-study-9976310.html

Against this background, on Tuesday evening I caught up with a television programme I had recorded on Sunday – Foyle’s War. If you have not followed the series over the years Foyle is a former policeman now working for MI5 in a post war Britain of hrash austerity. (in the early series set during World War 2 he investigated murders but the show was very much in the context of the war on the homefront.) It is the start of the Cold War so Communists feature in many plots but last Sunday’s episode was different.

There was a threat to the post war Jewish community and other refugees by a right wing party who want refugees to go “home” and the Jews to go to their new state of Israel. The local MP tries to stop the right wing party holding a rally but the local worthies feel that freedom of speech is too important.

I thought the show cleverly showed the tension that exists between having freedom to speak out and the need to police extremism. And a Sunday evening TV detective show got me thinking theologically – as we’ll see in a moment.

Inevitably, in the wake of the Paris shootings, our own government and security services have started to question whether such things could happen here. Were the Paris terrorists able to do what they did because surveillance had broken down? (The men were known to the French authorities apparently but had not been watched closely.) Apparently David Cameron the prime minister has pledged to introduce "more comprehensive powers" to monitor terror suspects in the UK. http://www.channel4.com/news/charlie-hebdo-paris-david-cameron-terrorism-response-france

With these events in my mind, and prompted by Foyle’s War, I recalled a famous quotation from Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

Pastor Niemöller was a supporter of the Nazi party in the early days but after the Nazis took power he came to realise what they really stood for and he became critical of them. These words (written after the war) suggest though that he always felt he should do more for those who were oppressed by the Nazis.

Were Martin Niemöller alive today how would he react I wonder to the situation in France or in this country? I’m not suggesting for a moment that President Hollande or Prime Minister David Cameron is akin to Adolf Hitler! But certainly in this country there has been a tendency in recent years for much of the press and the government to stir up “dislike” (hatred MAY be too strong a word) for certain groups whether those on benefits, immigrants, trade unionists, public sector workers or Muslims.

2,000 years ago Jesus said words that come back to me time and again

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[f]

Luke 4: 18 – 19.

For me, this is the foundation upon which those of us who are followers of Christ must live. To care for others, to love our neighbours, to stand up for the oppressed and marginalised and put ourselves beside them.

It is easy to choose not to get involved, to turn the blind eye, to think someone else will sort it out. But that is not what is expected of us by Christ.

Christ has many services to be done:
some are easy, others are difficult;
some bring honour, others bring reproach;
some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests,
others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

Methodist Covenant Service