For the New Year

December 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

About to go off and preach at our Watch Night service. Here’s what I’ll say…

Psalm 90, Matt 6 23 ff

It is well known in my house that if you put me in front of something like Sports Personality of the Year I will start crying almost immediately the highlights of the year come on. A ‘moment’, especially when set to music, conveys so much. Even just a photograph of an event, or a sound clip, can take you right back to what you were feeling and where you were when it happened.

So what were your ‘moments’? Unless you were an Olympics and Paralympics denier there will be many to do with the great sporting achievements of the year, and for me that includes the opening ceremonies of both games and the closing ceremony of the Paralympics. The less said about the Olympics Closing ceremony the better. And my highlight of all of that was Coldplay singing ‘Nobody said it was easy’, and the camera cutting away to Paralympians who had overcome so much all singing it back to them.

There will be other ‘moments’ we all shared – like the Jubilee, or the election of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, or Felix Baumgartner jumping out of a balloon from the edge of space, or Whitney Houston’s funeral, or President Obama’s re-election, or the devastation at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or Andy Murray winning the US Open, or the Ryder Cup, or the drought, or the rain, or the General Synod not voting for Women Bishops…or so much more.

And there will be your moments, which will be personally yours for 2012. For me some of those took place in Israel and Palestine. One such was being entertained for lunch in a Palestinian Muslim home in Hebron: one of the happiest meals I can remember in a place which exhibits some of the greatest tensions in the whole Middle East. The best moments are multi-layered, and repay our reflection again and again. There are difficult moments too – regrets and sadnesses, and all the if-onlys.

The change of date from 2012 to 2013 is not the wiping out of the old year and the offering of a completely blank page for the new, however much we might like it to be. But it is a multi-layered moment, where all that we are meets all that we will be, and offers us the chance to give thanks for all that has enriched us (and they can be sad as well as happy things, enrichments), and to seek forgiveness for our failures, and to seek healing for all that has wounded us, and to ask for strength to act and be and say and do what is good.

For the Psalmist the ‘three score years and ten’ of a human life is to be seen as a moment in the vastness of eternity, ‘from everlasting to everlasting’. So we should ask for wisdom, that in ticking off the years and ‘numbering our days’ we gain understanding as we reflect on God’s power and God’s love for us. Jesus counsels us to look around in this moment, see how God sustains creation, and to put ourselves into God’s hands, so that we do not try to live tomorrow before it comes, and worry at it.

May this moment be for you a time to thank, to confess, and to determine to live each moment in the service of God and the service of each other – to seek first God’s kingdom. And then we will see what moments 2013 has for us.

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

SONY DSCI don’t normally blog sermons. But tomorrow I preach at a Carol Service for the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths. What to say to a congregation for whom Christmas brings the memory of the lives of their little ones cut short? And what to say as the world watches a small town in America grieve its little ones? Here’s what I’ll say. It’s based on Isaiah 65. 17 – 25 (which I chose ages ago).

‘I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight’ says the prophet Isaiah, some two thousand five hundred years ago. ‘I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people’ he goes on. No more will there be the sound of weeping. No longer will children live but a few days, no longer will there be adults who die young. What thrills me about this poetic look into the future is its connection with reality. Some visions of the future are so fantastical that they are no earthly use. This one takes us from where we are, and offers us hope now. Where there has been pain there will be healing. Where there has been violence there will be peace. Where there has been death there will be life.

 I was privileged to spend the month of June in Jerusalem, and ate my breakfast each morning looking from its southern suburbs into Bethlehem. A few times I walked into Manger Square in Bethlehem. It took me 20 minutes. But to do so meant crossing from Israeli controlled Jerusalem to Palestinian governed Bethlehem, through a checkpoint in the 25 foot high Wall – the Separation Barrier. The checkpoint was guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, and each time we crossed we witnessed Palestinian families being thoroughly checked, their children thoroughly frightened.

 This part of Jerusalem is no joy. Today’s Holy Land, the focus of Issaiah’s promise, is no joy. In November a Palestinian rocket landed a mile or so from where I had stayed in June. In the current conflict innocents have died, including many children. We could be forgiven for regarding Isaiah’s vision as an irrelevance, a piece of wishful thinking, with no connection to what life is really like. Widening our horizon only confirms this view. The people of Newtown Connecticut can only cry out in agony at the massacre of children and adults there. ‘Our hearts are broken’ said President Obama. Their losses join the losses of people all round the world, and in all ages, and they join ours today. This congregation needs no reminding of what it is for a heart to be broken at the loss of a little one.

 ‘I am about to create joy, delight, length of days, fruitfulness, security, peace, blessing’ says God through Isaiah. And how will this come about? In the vision of this season generated by our popular culture it will be through pleasing aromas of Christmas food, through giving and receiving an iPad, through a celebrity autobiography, through the quality of our Christmas decorations, through sitting together in family harmony to watch other people’s misery on Emmerdale, Corrie or Eastenders on Christmas Day (7, 7.30 and 8.30 if you’re interested), through wearing ‘Christmas’ jumpers. Nice as some of those things are…I think not.

 Not when the abiding emotions and thoughts for many of you will be of what might have been, of who is not there, whether old or young – for me my mother who died seventeen years ago, my Grandmother who died this year, and my brother who died at six months when I was two, and whom I cannot remember yet miss as I watch my two sons interact and wonder what might have been for me and him these last fifty years. Such crying out is not settled and healed and solved by a soft focus warm glow jingle belled paper crowned high street Christmas. But, perhaps, even in the depths of despair felt by so many across the world at the needless death of their little ones, perhaps it may come to pass through what did happen in Bethlehem and which Isaiah looked forward to.

 It may come to pass because a fragile child was born in desperate circumstances in a tense country with occupying armies not afraid to massacre and kill little ones to enforce their rule. The vision of peace and hope may come to pass because a young woman grasped hold of words from God that the child she was carrying would change things. It may come to pass because her future husband – fathers feel this too – her future husband risked scandal and disgrace by holding on to that promise too, and welcomed the child as his own. It may come to pass because baby did become toddler and teenager and man, and lived what we live. It may come to pass because his mother lost him, watched him die, and cradled him then as she had cradled him just a few miles away and three decades before.

 It may come to pass because the Christian hope is that Jesus’s life and death is rooted in the painful reality of human life as it actually is, and that his new life reveals him to be the God who embraces our human life and sweeps us up into the new life of God. The vision of hope here is that you and I and everyone else who is broken up and hurting can glimpse the joy and hope which we have also experienced – in the love and care we have received from friend and relative and stranger, in the life we are determined to live with creativity and imagination precisely because we have loved so much. There is hope for ever because we have glimpsed it now. From this, even in the depths, there will be hope.

 I pray then, for you, for me, and for all who cry out in the pain of loss and in the warmth of remembering…I pray that we will know that real and possible vision, a graspable hope, through the birth of a tiny child, whose life and death and new life are our future, and whose arms are wide and whose love is everything.

Dividing up the land

October 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

You wait ages for a blog sermon, and two come at once. Thought I’d share what I’m about to preach at my country church…

Words from the end of our Old Testament reading tonight: ‘and the land had rest from war’ (Joshua 14. 15). They refer to the period after Joshua has entered the land promised to the descendants of Jacob, and has conquered cities like Jericho, Ai, Lachish and Hebron.

The Book of Joshua cannot be claimed to be an exhaustive history of the occupation of the land. It is more like a theological interpretation of the foundational story of what later became Israel. The peoples who lived there before the conquest were not utterly driven out, and for centuries the Israelites shared the land with people who worshipped other gods. Nevertheless, the Book of Joshua is keen to tell us that the occupation of these key cities was an act of God, and there are some pretty bloodthirsty scenes.

Those words I quoted are perhaps the saddest of all. The land has not had rest from war. It has been marched through and fought over again and again in the three millennia since Joshua. Every empire of the ancient world has had a go at the little strip of land between the sea and the Jordan river, yet somehow God’s ancient people the Jews have survived. Today every Jew has the right to come to the land and dwell in it. It is all too easy then to continue the theologising of Joshua and declare that the right to live in Israel is God given, and therefore anyone or anything which gets in the way is against God and must be opposed.

Reading between the lines in Joshua, and the books of Judges, Kings and Samuel, you can see that the situation was much more complex than the theology would allow, and it remains so today. Christians who believe in the God-given right of Jews to inhabit their land also have to take into account the Christians who have lived there for two millennia. Christian churches and communities were uprooted in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded. Muslims, describing themselves also as children of Abraham, have lived in the land for a millennium and a half.

Much of that complexity can still be seen in the city of Hebron, the subject of tonight’s Old Testament reading. It is a key city for Jew, Christian and Muslim. For the Jew it was an early conquest as the land was settled, it commanded the hill country and the desert south of Jerusalem and it was where David first established his Kingdom. For Muslim, Christian and Jew it is the place where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah are buried, in the Cave of Machpelah. Today a small Jewish community is settled, protected by the Israeli Army, in the middle of an Arab city of a quarter of a million or more.

The cave in which the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried is now topped by a mosque which was a church, with a synagogue in part of the complex. It has been the scene of protests and massacres, and it one of the key flashpoints, being the largest city in the West Bank, yet a focus of Jewish identity. It is hard to see what should happen next, and I will not try. I simply reflect that the Christ of the Beatitudes would seek to find another way to tear down the walls which divide people, and that the key battle now is for the hearts and minds of people at enmity with each other, to find the true way of peace.

I found such people in Hebron in June. Women whose embroidery collective brings a living, and whose welcome, as Muslims, to Christians like us was a humbling exercise in hospitality. International Observers, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, who simply monitored incidents in different flashpoints, and faithfully sought to tell the world this story. And, later, Jews keen to ensure that there was justice for all as well as security for their land.

Some Old Testament scholars  describe the conquest of the Promised Land as more like a peaceful revolution than an armed invasion. Perhaps the people of Hebron recognised the God of Jacob as the one they wanted to follow. As you pray for that land, remember the people of Hebron, locked in an ancient conflict, and pray for a peaceful transition to the kind of living together which honours their shared heritage as children of Abraham. And echoing the prayers and actions of the Christian minority in Israel and Palestine, pray that the Prince of Peace will rule, and bring peace, so that the land may have ‘rest from war’.

Hebron’s disputed centre. Israeli military post on a Palestinian house.

Israel and Palestine

July 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

You might have seen reports of another debate at Synod yesterday. We talked about Israel and Palestine, using a motion which asked us to affirm the work of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel– EAPPI (and said other things too – the motion is at the end of this post).

Synod members received a lot of pressure from Jews in this country to remove the reference to EAPPI, which was regarded by many as anti-Israel. I received the first such email an hour after returning to Jerusalem from a visit to Hebron, where we had been shown round by EAPPI. EAPPI monitors and observes the treatment of Palestinians by the State of Israel, and Hebron is a key flashpoint.

Israeli Graffiti in Hebron

Because of the lobby the Bishop of Manchester asked us to remove the specific reference to EAPPI – he chairs the Council of Christians and Jews, and was concerned about Christian Jewish relations in this country. The Bishop of Durham and, after a fashion, the Archbishop of Canterbury said the same, but Synod voted to keep the motion as it was.

I spent June inIsrael. The wisest advice I received was not to blog, or give great pronouncements about things, because life is indeed complicated, so I kept quiet to allow thoughts to emerge. It seemed right to speak in the debate though, mainly because the Irsaeli Jews we met were desperate for their State to act justly, and because the Palestinians we met (Christian and Muslim) all asked for their story to be told.

In my speech I looked for balance – so I referred to the increased security which the separation barrier has offered, as well as the fractured land it contributes to. But in the end I was convinced that the naming of an organisation trained by Quakers and part of the World Council of Churches was no threat to relations between Christians and Jews, and no threat to the State of Israel. Where conduct is right, scrutiny is welcome. Here’s the speech:

 Mr Chairman, I hope that you, and members of the Synod, will have the chance one day to visit the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, inJerusalem. If you do so in June, and sit at the time of the evening breeze, as the sun goes down from a cloudless sky, your thoughts might turn, as did ours, to the subject of Gin and Tonic.

 This is indeed available. Mr Awwad’s store has it, and from Tantur is about the same distance as is Tescos from my Vicarage in Beverley. The difference is that to get to Awwad’s you must go through the Separation Barrier. Three weeks ago I wondered whether it was  worth the bother of finding which turnstile was working, the experience of the caged walkway, whether it was worth the humiliation of waving my passport at an armed soldier just to get the Bombay Sapphire.

I confess now to how flippant and stupid a thought this was. For the people in theWest Bank life  is difficult, demeaning, and occasionally life threatening. We heard about and understood the Wall’s effectiveness in increasing security and reducing the killing and wounding of the innocent. But we were also affected by the treatment of those who have to use the checkpoints each day – some of them in front of us in the queue. And we looked each day at olive groves whose owners could not tend them because the Wall divided them. Security? – may be. Land grabbing? Well, it’s perceived that way too.

In our month in Israel we heard from many people. Here are three observations, one from a Palestinian, two from Israelis committed to their State. Machsom Watch is made up of Israeli women  many of grandmotherly age. ‘Machsom’ means checkpoint, and there they observe the conduct of the Israeli army and border forces. Many soldiers are in their late teens, and you’d be careful if  you knew your granny was watching. Our lady said that she says to the soldiers  ‘you should be pleased I’m here. It’s a sign that I know you will do your job right.’ She reminds them of the boast that the Israeli Defence Force is the most humane army in the world, and holds them to it. Scrutiny should be welcome where conduct is right.

 An academic who advises the Israeli military told us that the fact that the Palestinian Question seems to be off the world’s agenda is regarded as a foreign policy win byIsrael. That this motion has generated the response it has is perhaps a success in itself. There is manifest unfairness and injustice – maybe on both sides, though I think the Palestinians get off worse – and our concentration on it may lead to justice being done.

Father Ibrahim Mairouz is the Anglican priest in Nablus. As the holder of a Jordanian Passport and a Palestinian ID he is regularly prevented from travelling to Jerusalem to Diocesan meetings. It is he who convenes the monthly gathering of Nablus’s Imams. There is a mosque on land given by the church. He said to us: ‘we must build bridges, not walls’.

I support any motion which will keep the situation inIsrael and Palestine at the forefront of our thoughts and prayers. It may well be that we will do this best by using the Bishop of Manchester’s amendment, since undue attention to one organisation might deflect us from the wider goal.

But let me testify that the five hours we spent with the EAPPI team in Hebron were unforgettable. Of course the EAs are not impartial: their reason for being there is a request from one side, not both. But they simply record, and they do speak to settlers and soldiers as well as Palestinians. Their introduction of the situation in Hebronwas clear, calm and as far away from propaganda as you could imagine. I will invite returned EA’s to my church, and I will invite faithful Israelis to do the same. The situation demands bridges, not walls.

On the day I left Israel 2 Israeli solders were filmed hitting a nine year old boy on the streets in Hebronwhere we had been ten days before. You can see it on the B’Tselem website. And on the very same day an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post said this: “there should be a common awareness that [each nationality has] been destined to coexist side by side in the same country. And since that is the reality, there should be a concerted attempt by everyone involved or affected to transform this situation into one that is truly beneficial to both peoples – Jews and Arabs”

I’ll go with the Jerusalem Post, and I will vote with all my heart for a motion that encourages us, and the wider world, to ensure that in the land we call Holy there is justice, security, honour, and, for all Shalom/Salaam. 22. ‘That this Synod affirm its support for:

(a) the vital work of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme inPalestine and Israel(EAPPI), encouraging parishioners to volunteer for the programme and asking churches and synods to make use of the experience of returning participants;

(b) mission and other aid agencies working amongst Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere in the region;

(c) Israelis and Palestinians in all organisations working for justice and peace in the area, such as the Parents Circle– Families Forum;


(d) Palestinian Christians and organisations that work to ensure their continuing presence in the Holy Land.’

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