22 June 2008

So do not be afraid

A quilt by Hollis Chatelain showing Archbishop Desmond Tutu surrounded by children

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 22 June 2008, 5th Sunday after Trinity:

Genesis 21: 8-21; Psalm 86: 1-10, 16-17; Romans 6: 1b-11; Matthew 10: 24-39.

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Over the last few weeks, I have been reading some very insightful essays for students on the adult education course that leads to the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology.

Some Whitechurch parishioners have enrolled for this course, and it’s exciting to know that there are so many thinking people who want to engage with their Christian faith in a challenging, questioning way, seeking to explore and deepen their understanding of how relevant Christianity and the Church are to the world today and its problems.

These people are not raw, naïve students. They display a wide variety of age, experience, and background.

They come with a variety of experiences that challenge our stereotypical image of the Church of Ireland. Yes, there are suburban housewives and businessmen, and young people from rectory families. And they bring amazing and often unconventional questions and insights to the discussions, as we can all imagine in this parish.

But they sit side-by-side – and sit comfortably side-by-side – with the other students: the single mother with teenage sons; the refugee who has seen horrific outrages, only to find herself marginalised by the cold Irish system; the farmer who travels a round trip of hundreds of miles just to learn more, and to be challenged more deeply by the Christian faith.

Well no-one said it was going to be easy, did they?

The Christian faith should be challenging. Our reflections on it should be challenging and should challenge us. And as we integrate that reflection, our discipleship should be challenging to the world … even when that means that there is a price to pay.

How free do you feel you are to express your faith today?

What inhibits you when it comes to talking about your core values and beliefs today?

It may not be fear of persecution and death; it may simply be the prospect of being embarrassed, or of embarrassing others.

How often have you heard people declining to stand up for Christianity in a discussion, saying something like: “Well all religions are the same anyway, aren’t they?”

But if we are unwilling to speak up about our beliefs in time of plenty, how difficult will it be to speak up for Christian values, the Christian point of view, when things are difficult, when things are tough?

Some of the greatest people I have known who have spoken up for Christian values and the Christian faith, knowing the consequences but not fearing them, have been the Church leaders in South Africa during the apartheid era.

As a young adult who had recently come to experience the love of God and started to explore the challenges of Christian discipleship, I was deeply challenged by the witness of the Dean of Johannesburg, who opened the doors of his cathedral and offered sanctuary to black protesters who were being beaten on the cathedral steps by white police using rhino whips.

Dean Gonville ffrench-Beytagh knew the consequences. He was jailed, and eventually exiled from South Africa. To us the words of the German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he bore the “Cost of Discipleship.”

Some years later, while apartheid was still in force, I was privileged to interview Desmond Tutu. He too had been Dean of Saint Mary’s in Johannesburg, and when I first met him he was secretary general of the South African Council of Churches.

I was worried about the many death threats he was receiving, and I asked him how he lived with those threats? Was he worried about them? Did he ever consider modifying what he had to say because of them?

He gave me an answer similar to one he gave when he was facing tough questioning before the regime’s Eloff Commission. He told that inquiry:

“There is nothing the government can do to me that will stop me from being involved in what I believe God wants me to do. I do not do it because I like doing it. I do it because I am under what I believe to be the influence of God’s hand. I cannot help it. When I see injustice, I cannot keep quiet, for, as Jeremiah says, when I try to keep quiet, God’s Word burns like a fire in my breast. But what is it that they can ultimately do? The most awful thing that they can do is to kill me, and death is not the worst thing that could happen to a Christian.”

Staying quiet when I should speak out will deal a death blow to my morals and my morale. Silence in the face of injustice and suffering is a silent denial of my faith, and of Christ.

I’m sure that while they spoke out against the injustices of apartheid and Nazism, those great Church leaders over the past century, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh and Desmond Tutu, were not without fear. They were not that stupid. They knew there were consequences. But they took up their cross and followed Christ, and are worthy of the name Christian (Matthew 10: 38).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was jailed, tortured and died in a concentration camp; Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was jailed, tortured and exiled, and for years afterwards continued to suffer from bouts of depression; and Desmond Tutu was persecuted, and his home and offices bombed.

But they knew that despite their physical fears were, and the fears they had for the families, who would also suffer socially and physically, that they had little to fear spiritually.

For as the Apostle Paul challenges us in our Epistle reading this morning, we have already gone through death with Christ because of our baptism. We are now called to live a new life with him. We are no longer slaves to the old ways of doing things, we are now citizens of the Kingdom of God. Death no longer has dominion (see Romans 6: 3-11).

Being alive to Christ allows the great Christians of our time to speak up when their voice needs to be heard, to take risks even when there is a price to pay. And do it knowing that there is nothing to fear spiritually, even if the consequences are dreadful and frightening by other people’s standards.

How often do we take the easy option out? How often do we give nice names to the bad things we do? How often do we pretend that we’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? Or simply because we are doing what’s expected of us, what were told to do?

How often good labels have been hijacked to disguise the dreadful. The slogan on the gates outside Auschwitz, Dachau and other Nazi death camps was: “Arbeit mach frei” – “Work makes you free.”

The word “apartheid” does not mean racism. It actually means “separate development” which sounds good except there were no hopes of development and opportunity for anyone but the white people in South Africa.

As he was leading the United States further-and-further along in the nuclear arms race, developing new nuclear missiles that would eventually contribute to economic recession, President Ronald Reagan declared in his Second Inaugural address in 1984: “Peace is our highest aspiration. The record is clear, Americans resort to force only when they must. We have never been aggressors.” They even named one new nuclear weapon “Peacemaker” and named a nuclear warship Corpus Christi.

But it was always so throughout history. In an oft-quoted passage in De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, the Roman orator and historian Tacitus, at the end of chapter 30, quotes a speech by a British chieftain Calgacus addressing assembled warriors about Rome’s insatiable appetite for conquest and plunder: “ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (“where they make a desert, they call it peace,” Oxford Revised Translation).

This British chieftain’s sentiment was meant as an ironic contrast with the slogan, “Peace given to the world,” which was frequently inscribed on Roman medals.

This phrase from Tacitus is often quoted alone. The poet Lord Byron, for instance adapts the phrase in Bride of Abydos (1813):

Mark where his carnage and his conquests cease!
He makes a solitude, and calls it – peace.

The same irony is found when Jesus says to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading: “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10: 34).

It is not that Jesus was encouraging his disciples to be warmongers – what a gross misreading of his teachings that would be. Nor is he encouraging family rows, encouraging sons to storm out on their fathers, mothers to nag and niggle at their daughters (Matthew 10: 35).

But he is warning his disciples it’s not going to be easy. They’re not going to have a quiet time. Those who want a quiet life as Christians can forget about. And their hopes of a quiet life as passive Christians will vanish quickly.

Are we prepared to stand up for our faith and its values even at the risk of being ridiculed? Even when this upsets the peace of our families, our communities, our society and our land?

Some of those essays I have been reading over the past few weeks from those students on that adult education course encourages me when it comes to worrying whether people prefer peace at any price or taking a costly stand, even when it challenges prevailing values in our society today.

Many of them have looked at the way we treat immigrants, migrants and refugees in our society. Yes, they observed the rising levels of racism in our society. Yes, they noticed the inadequate welfare and support payments they receive.

But they were even more challenging about the way they thought the Church was too comfortable about the problems we are facing in Irish society today. We’re too inward-looking, most of them say in their essays. We’re too much of a club.

They’ve stopped and looked at ordinary, everyday parishes. There’s no fear of fathers being set against their sons, mothers against their daughters, daughters-in-law against mothers-in-law, or of finding foes within the household (Matthew 10: 35-37).

Most of them found our parishes were too like comfortable families or clubs, not open to the worries, concerns and fears of the outsider.

Do we love the clubbish atmosphere in the Church of Ireland more than we love the Church, the Gospel and Christ?

Or are we prepared to speak out, not worrying about the consequences, knowing that “whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10: 39).

And now may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the glory honour and praise of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin on Sunday 22 June 2008. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College

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