Saturday, 17 September 2011

A sermon on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, by Kevin Bright

10th Anniversary of 9/11

Don’t you sometimes find it irritating when you are quite clear what punishment is appropriate for a crime only to see the judiciary get it wrong yet again? Last month’s riots provided an incredible range of views from petitions demanding that those involved must lose their homes and benefits through to protests outside Brixton prison against unnecessary criminalisation and harsh sentencing.

Take time to think about it all in a Christian context and you can find yourself even more annoyed to think that God may have different standards of judgement to many of us as well. Our readings carry warnings against instantly turning to what seems the obvious reaction to a certain incident, there’s a real chance that it will be a wrong choice if we don’t stop to think what God wants for the world.

Take the parable that Jesus tells about the forgiven slave. He’s relieved that his master has showed extraordinary generosity in forgiving his considerable debt so he decides to use this opportunity to get himself financially secure for the future so he never finds himself in such a sticky situation again. Instead of spreading the generosity and forgiveness he had benefited from, instead of learning what forgiveness in action looks like, he aggressively pursues the debt he is owed to the dismay of his fellow slaves. They report him to the master who then holds him to his own standards until the debt is repaid.

Talking of debt there’s a man called Larry Silverstein whose company paid The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey $3.2bn dollars for a 99 year lease of the World Trade Centre site just 6 weeks before the horrific events that unfolded on September 11th 2001.

Quite rightly the focus was solely on the human loss and suffering caused by the19 hijackers who flew planes into the two towers of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon not forgetting the plane which crashed in Pennsylvania as passengers attempted to overcome the terrorists.

Yet as time passed it became increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that beneath all this pain and tragedy something was going to have to be done with the 16 acre site in downtown Manhattan, one of the world’s most valuable pieces of real estate.

There are a huge number of stories about the individuals caught up in the events of 9/11, Silverstein himself was nagged by his wife to keep a medical appointment that morning but would otherwise have been in the World Trade Centre as he was most other days. An old school mate of mine was unusually away from his office that morning as well.

Whilst fortune favoured a few it’s hard to know exactly how the vast numbers who lost love ones felt once the situation hit home and their grief became a daily reality. The obvious reaction for many is to declare war on the perpetrators of the acts of terror, to do anything else may have felt unnatural.  How could such a course of action, motivated by a desire to protect loved ones, values and civil society be the wrong one? It’s so hard to know whether all that has been done since, much of it at great cost to our armed forces and their families, really has been the right course.

There seems little logic to the attacks carried out, whilst the buildings were capitalist symbols can you imagine for a moment that the terrorists had sincerely investigated what they were being brainwashed into doing.  They appear guilty of applying their own version of a bitter and ill considered justice, one which doesn’t line up with the God that most of Islam recognises. There’s a message to us all to use our brains our bible and to have a true desire for justice which God will recognise if we are not to follow a similar course.

Were their targets described to the terrorists as loving parents enduring the daily slog to support their families, were they told that they would be attacking the citizens of 90 different countries not just the USA, would they have considered that dozens of Muslims would be killed including a pregnant woman and some who died trying to rescue others. Were they told that there would be inevitable suffering over many years for large numbers of innocent citizens of Islamic countries as a result of their actions? It seems impossible to consider such things as a compassionate human being, let alone before God and still pursue such an evil course.

I’m not sure that we will ever truly understand the minds of the terrorists and it will take many years before the reaction to these attacks can be rationally considered in the context of history.

Several years after the events Sally and I took the children to New York. As well as doing all the typical tourist stuff we visited St Paul’s chapel which had served as an emergency centre immediately following the attacks. Inside the church there were still tributes to the 343 fire fighters who lost their lives in the events. The thing that I shall always remember was the incredible range of foreign sounding names. Surely it was a sign of hope for the future that such a cross section of humanity had died working together to do all they could for their fellow human beings at their time of greatest need.

A priest ministering to rescue workers described their work as selfless, considerate and loving, recalling this time as one of the most profound experiences of the Holy Spirit he had ever experienced.

He stated that ‘all of their work, of course, was deeply informed by the sacrifices that had already been made by the firefighters and rescue workers who gave their lives as they raced into the burning buildings on September 11. For me, it was as if God was offering us a parable. In the Gospels, when people asked what God or the Kingdom of God is like, Jesus offered them a parable, a story drawn from nature or everyday life to help them understand things more deeply. Jesus would say: God is like the father welcoming back his son. Or: God is like a woman sweeping her house.
And here was God offering us a parable today. As I looked around at the rescue workers, I thought, what is God like? God is like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone. That's how much God loves us. And I saw this love expressed in the great charity of all the rescue workers who gathered at the American Golgotha.’
Outside the church we also visited the ‘Bell of Hope’ a bell cast at Whitechapel bell Foundry which was sent to the people of New York from the people of London on the first anniversary of the attacks, part of the inscription reads ‘forged in adversity – September 11 2001.’
It’s become a symbol of solidarity and rememberance for all who suffer and we were not to know that it would be rung for our own victims of the London 7/7 bombings in 2005 as well as attacks in Madrid, Mumbai and Moscow and most recently the victims of the Norwegian attacks.
If we go back to the Genesis reading we heard that Joseph’s brothers treated him terribly, in their case they can reflect that whilst their annoying spoilt little brother irritated them their disproportionately angry actions were totally wrong. They therefore find it hard to believe that he can forgive them and that they can have a future together.
The bell of hope will toll today as it has on every anniversary of September 11. It’s up to us whether the hope for a better future becomes a reality. If we can see that God loves us enough to run into a burning building we know that he also wants all his people to share in a hope that brings life out of death. He calls upon us to show that love cannot be destroyed by the evil acts of a minority.
The terrorists who committed the acts of evil on 9/11 are our fellow human beings, even though a more distorted example it is hard to imagine. The process of reconciliation can only start when we are able to recognise them as such.
The grief, pain and anger of all who have suffered deserve to be respected for what they are in each individual’s case.
For many it will be too much to expect us to follow Jesus parable, recognise the debts owed to a God who loves us without limits, who has forgiven us without limits that we might forgive others out of our gratitude. Yet this is what we are called to do.
At ground zero Larry Silverstein has finally got planning permission for redevelopment of the land he bought with the first new tower up to 66 floors already. At age 80 Silverstein laughs as he says’ he doesn’t have a clue’ what the financial returns will be. Circumstances have changed and he’s most interested in seeing a gaping hole filled both economically and physchologically. It’s an important element in the long term healing process.
I sense that God see’s a gaping whole too, between faiths and nations and it’s for us to consider how we try to bridge this and the shared future which will result.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Owe no one anything...except to love

Romans 13.8-14, Matt 18.15-20

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…” That was St Paul’s advice to the Christians in Rome in the first reading we heard today. That passage was part of a much longer letter, and just before the words we heard Paul had been telling his hearers to make sure they honoured their obligations. “Pay to all what is due to them, “ he’d said, “ – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenues are due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.”

Those words were just common sense and wouldn’t have been surprising to his Roman audience. They knew it was important to honour their obligations – they lived in a world that was shaped by obligations, a world where there was a rigid hierarchy, a world where everyone knew their place and mostly kept to it. Roman society ran on a system called patronage, where richer people - the patrons – supporting poorer people, known as clients, not employees as such, but hangers-on of one sort or another, who were supported by the patrons. The clients obviously got money out of this, but it also gave them friends in high places, which was very important when there was no welfare state and no concept of universal human rights – you needed powerful people who were on your side. But the patrons benefited from this system too. It gave them status and respect. Every morning there was a formal ceremony where clients came to greet their patrons – the bigger the crowd who attended on you, the more important, and wealthy, you obviously were. In return for your support, your clients had to be loyal to you, to vote for you if you stood for public office, for example. This system of obligation was the glue that held society together, but it was a rather fragile glue because it depended on people living up to their promises, playing their part. If a patron decided to drop a client there was nothing the client could do about it, and if a client got a better offer, the patron might find himself sliding down the social scale. “Pay to all what is due to them,” says Paul, “Owe no one anything” as the passage we heard began. Roman society wouldn’t work otherwise.

But then Paul goes on, and what he says next gives us a very different world-view, and one that was, and is, profoundly challenging.

“Owe no one anything except to love one another…”

You can pay all your dues, he is saying, meet all your obligations, fulfil all your contracts, do what you said you would do, but when you have done all of that, if you really want to call yourself a follower of Christ, you will only just have started. It is when obligation finishes, says Paul, that love begins. You may be able to pay people the money or work you owe, but love can’t be bought or traded. Love isn’t a transaction where “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”; it isn’t something we can get because we deserve or have earned it. Love, in the Christian understanding, is a gift without strings, freely given and freely received. If it has strings – conditions – limits – then it isn’t really love at all, says Paul.

For Christians the model for this love is the love God has for us. He loves us, says the Bible, not because of anything we have done to deserve it but simply because he chooses to. It is in his nature to love his children, just as it is in Jemima and Annabel’s parent’s nature to love their children. When Jemima and Annabel were born you didn’t sit down and work out how much love you thought it was worth giving them, how much they might repay over their life time – at least I hope you didn’t! You didn’t open an account and start recording how much love you put in and how much love they gave back, with the aim of giving them a final account to settle when they left home. And though I’m sure there are times when you feel frustrated or cross with them, that doesn’t mean you stop caring about them. God loves us like that, says the Bible, but the really challenging part of Paul’s message is that we are all called to love like that too, not just our families, but everyone who needs our help, whether they have anything to give us in return or not. Paul calls us to is a whole new way of looking at the world, not in terms of what’s in it for us, what we can grab and cling to, but what we can give. He calls us to love that is patient, that doesn’t give up.

Our Gospel reading tells us the same thing. It doesn’t look as if it does at first sight. In fact it looks as if it is stating the opposite, but bear with me and I’ll explain.

In it, Jesus tells his disciples what they should do if someone in their community does something seriously wrong. It is bound to happen – we are all human, and flawed, prone to hurting one another. When that happens, says Jesus, first of all you should try to sort it out face to face, honestly. If that doesn’t work, take one or two others with you and try again – they can act as mediators and witnesses. If things still aren’t sorted, let the whole community know what’s wrong. If that doesn’t work, and you really can’t persuade the person to change their ways, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” That’s the bit that sounds rather unfriendly at first sight, because Gentiles – non-Jews – and tax-collectors were widely despised in Jesus’ world. Respectable Jewish people weren’t supposed to associate with them – Gentiles didn’t keep the Jewish food laws, so they were unclean, and tax-collectors collaborated with the Romans. It sounds as if Jesus is telling people to have nothing to do with those who have hurt or offended them – put them out, ignore them, avoid them.

But there’s an irony in Jesus’ words here which perhaps only really becomes clear to us if we remember how Jesus actually treated Gentiles and tax-collectors himself. These people – and a whole bunch of others who were thought of as sinners – were just the people he went out of his way to spend time with. He was famous for it. He was often criticised for it by the respectable leaders of his society, but that didn’t stop him. He healed the child of a Roman soldier – a member of the occupying forces. He made a beeline for Zaccheus, a tax-collector who everyone hated, and invited himself into his home and into his life; “today salvation has come to Zaccheus’ house,” he declared to the crowd. They were horrified, but it turned Zaccheus’ life around completely. We don’t know for sure who wrote the Gospels, but the one from whom this story comes was ascribed from an early age to Matthew. And who was Matthew? He was a tax-collector, called by Jesus to leave his work and follow him.

Jesus’ words here aren’t an instruction to shun someone who has hurt you, or give up on them, but quite the reverse. It is a call to go back to the beginning with them, to remind yourself that this too is a child of God, just as you are, and someone who needs love more than ever. What that kind of love might look like in practice, how it might be expressed, depends on the circumstances – it doesn’t necessarily mean putting yourself back into their hands again for example. But we aren’t given the option of writing people off.

Like I said, it is a whole different world view from the one we see around us a lot of the time, but it is the way of Christ. Christian faith isn’t about assenting to a bunch of unlikely sounding theological ideas, it is about loving – “by this will all people know you are my followers,” said Jesus in another place. It is the way of life we are launching Jemima and Annabel on today in baptism, and it’s a tough challenge. Fortunately though, they aren’t alone in it. In Baptism parents and god-parents are backed by the whole church community as they promise to “walk with them in the way of Christ” - not give them directions while we wave them off on the journey, but to take to the road by their side. We are not spectators; we are fellow travellers, welcoming Jemima and Annabel into the company of a pilgrim people. They call us back to the promises we have made for ourselves to “walk in the way of Christ” as we learn to love as he loves us. Their baptisms, like all baptisms, are a wonderful moment for all of us who call ourselves Christian to ask where we are on that road of love.