In 1998 a young priest, who was just 33 years old at the time, had some devastating news. He’d been suffering from blurred vision and problems with balance, and tests revealed that he had multiple sclerosis. There’s no good time to get news like that, but this was a particularly bad moment. His second child had just been born, and he had just taken up a new job at Coventry Cathedral as director of the International Centre for Reconciliation which was based there, a job which took him to many of the world’s trouble-zones, often in the Middle East, to which he’d always felt a particular calling.
We probably tend to think of Iraq as a Muslim country, but in fact there have been Christian communities there since the earliest days of the church, long before Christian faith reached Western Europe, and there were even older Jewish communities there. Iraq occupies much of the ancient territories of Assyria and Babylon, the lands where the Old Testament locates the Garden of Eden, where Abraham came from, and where the people of Jerusalem were taken into exile, and where many remained.
The largest and oldest Christian communities in Iraq were in in the city of Niniveh, founded, it is said, by St Thomas on his way to India. Ancient Nineveh eventually became the modern city of Mosul, a familiar name from this week’s news – it’s one of those cities which has been taken over by ISIS. Many of the Christians there have fled, of course, and no one knows what will happen next.
Andrew White has said that this is the worst crisis the country has faced since the 2003 war. He was in the UK with his family when ISIS began their advance and he isn’t able to go back to Iraq at the moment - it is just too dangerous. But he is working here to raise funds to enable the work of St George’s to continue, and he’s asking for our prayers for all the people of Iraq and for St George’s at this time. I have put a link on the pew leaflet to his website (http://frrme.org/) , where you can donate or find out more. If you don’t do the internet, I can pass on donations if you want to contribute.
Work like this, in such a wounded society can be heart-breaking. Canon White has seen many of those he has worked with and cared for killed or kidnapped over the years, and progress is often achingly slow, when it happens at all. The situation is always precarious. And to add to the external threats, he still has MS to contend with, of course, which frequently leaves him exhausted and unwell. Even before this latest crisis he said, “There are times when I wish I had a different calling.” I bet he does!
The first reading we heard today could have been written for him or the many other people who work for peace and justice around the world today, slogging away against what look like impossible odds.
It comes from the time leading up to the exile in Babylon, and in it the prophet Jeremiah speaks to God with searing honesty. God’s given him a message to deliver to the people of Jerusalem, warning them of the hardship to come, trying to prepare them for this time of exile. But they don’t want to hear it. They’d rather just go on as they are, sleepwalking into disaster. They try to shut Jeremiah up. They even throw him into a muddy cistern at one stage.
No wonder he sounds bitter. He began this mission because God called him to it, but now it feels like it was all a cruel trap. “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed”. Some translations even say, “Lord you have seduced me”. God’s pulled a fast one on him – look at what his faithfulness has got him into!
But he can’t give up. “If I say ‘I will not mention God, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones…”
Most of us aren’t called to prophesy to people going into exile, or to lead churches in war-zones. But we can all find ourselves in over our heads in situations that turned out to be far more complicated than we expected, bearing burdens that were not of our making. Perhaps we’ve tried to build bridges between squabbling family members only to find them turning on us. Perhaps we’ve blown the whistle on some wrong-doing at work, and been ostracised for it. Perhaps we’ve offered to help someone in a moment of crisis, and now find we are exhausted – their needs were far greater than we realised.
Sometimes, of course, it really was none of our business – we just needed to be needed. It’s important to be aware of our motives when we help others. But if we take the Christian message seriously we can’t just pass by on the other side when we see a problem. The reality is that loving others is often far messier and more draining than we bargain for, even with the right motivation and skills. If it was easy, the world wouldn’t be in the state it is. Living responsibly, living with love and care is inevitably sometimes going to mean challenge and difficulty.
In our Gospel reading Jesus says , “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” . That doesn’t mean he wants his followers to take a path of violence. It simply reflects the reality that the early Christians had to live with. Jesus taught a message of love and justice, of radical equality in the sight of God and that was never going to go down well with those in power. They’d clawed out positions of privilege and they feared that if they lost them, they would have lost everything that made life worth living. It takes great courage to let go of power, courage that is rooted in the realisation that we are already of infinite worth to God, whether others see it or not. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. God sees the sparrow that falls. He’s counted the hairs on your head. He hasn’t forgotten you, even if the rest of the world thinks you’re beneath its notice. When we know that, we have all the security we need.
Christianity in the UK has traditionally been privileged, and there’s a real tendency among some Christians to fret when some of those privileges seem to be ebbing away, to cry “persecution” because someone isn’t allowed to wear a cross with their uniform, to complain that Christians are being elbowed out of the public square. But if we truly believe in God, then why should we need to cling to those privileges? His love for us and his power to work through us don’t depend on us occupying some special position. Demanding a right to be heard seems to me to be a sign that something has gone wrong with our faith.
Andrew White was asked in an interview whether Christians in Iraq were targeted for persecution. “Yes, of course they are,” he answered. “Everybody in Iraq is targeted – it doesn’t matter whether you are Sunni, Shia, Mandean, Yazidi or Christian – they are all targeted because they are different from those who target them.” That’s why the work St George’s does towards reconciliation isn’t about fighting for the rights of persecuted Christians; it’s about working towards a society in which no one is persecuted, or feels the need to persecute others. That can only happen when we learn that God is bigger than our human ideas of him, and has a way of showing up in people and places we never expected him to, because he regards them with the same infinite love as he does us. That’s what enables us to listen to and love our enemies as well as our friends, and when we do that, we learn to forgive, which is the only thing, Andrew White says, “that can prevent the pain of the past from dictating the future.”
I’d like to finish with a story he tells of a conference that was part of an earlier peace-making initiative. It brought together Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders.
“A Jewish businessman hosted a lunch in London for Rabbi Melchior, Sheikh Talal and me. There were many journalists present, and one of them, an Arab, shouted at the sheikh: ‘How can you sit with this evil Zionist?’ The sheikh paused and then, taking the rabbi’s hand, he declared: ‘This man is my brother and we will walk this long and difficult road of reconciliation together until we find peace.’ ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ someone called out. Sheikh Talal replied: ‘I am pulling up thorns and planting flowers.’ Suddenly, I realized that this was indeed the work God had called us to. A former advocate of violence was doing what the Prince of Peace calls us all to do. Whenever I am losing hope – which is often – it is this exchange I think of, and it enables me to keep going for another day.”
Today we pray for the people of Iraq, and for the work of St George’s Baghdad, and we pray for ourselves too, for the love and energy we need to “pull up thorns and plant flowers” in the places we are called to.