15 November 2015

‘When you hear of wars and rumours of wars …
this is but the beginning of the birth pangs’

A typical scene in the European refugee crisis: refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean being rescued by Irish Naval personnel from the ship LÉ Eithne (Photograph: Irish Defence Forces/Anglican Communion News Service/Us)

Patrick Comerford,

Zion Church, Rathgar, Dublin,

Sunday 15 November 2015,

The Second Sunday before Advent

10.30 a.m.,
Morning Prayer 2.

Readings: Daniel 12: 1-3; Psalm 16; Mark 13: 1-8.

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

Winter has arrived, the evenings are closing in, the nights are getting longer, and the year is coming to an end.

The church seasons are changing too. Advent, which marks a New Year in the Church, begins the Sunday after next [29 November 2015]. Carol services are being planned, Christmas gifts are being wrapped, Christmas cards are being written, and for many places the last posting date for Christmas [4 December 2015] is looming.

In the midst of darkness, there is always hope.

But in the darkness it is also natural that we should think of our greatest fears.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Peter, Andrew, James and John are with Christ on the Mount of Olives, looking across to Jerusalem and the Temple.

But Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is not going to be triumphant, and he warns these four disciples – these four who act almost like Christ’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ in the Gospels – that the future is not going to be all plain sailing.

He talks about false teachers, wars and rumours of wars, nations fighting against nation, earthquakes, famines and natural disasters.

All of us have been shocked by the violence in Paris in the past 36 hours. The attacks in Paris and a few days earlier in Beirut were designed to shake the very foundations of all our societies. They are an assault on our shared humanity, and our tolerance, liberty and respect – the values that ought to underpin the world we share.

In the past week, many of us have been remembering the wars in the last 100 years that threatened not once but twice to destroy Europe. We are still in the middle of the centenary marking World War I, and this year has marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. And we remembered those who fought in both wars and who were promised that these were “wars to end all wars.”

Yet the Anglican suffragan Bishop in Europe, Bishop David Hamid, has said in the past week that the refugee crisis in Europe is the “largest crisis that Europe has had to face since World War II.” He warns that churches, governments and aid and mission agencies need to prepare for a “medium- to long-term situation” to a crisis that is “not going to go away quickly.”

I spent three days in the past week [11-13 November 2015] at a meeting of the Trustees of Us, the Anglican mission agency previously known as USPG or the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

It was a residential meeting in Westcott House, the Anglican theological college in Cambridge. And during those days I heard again and again of the work Us or USPG is doing with refugees throughout Europe.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that so far this year over three quarters of a million refugees and migrants have arrived by boat in Europe. Most of them – around 620,000 – have arrived in Greece; while Italy has received over 140,000 people, Spain almost 3,000 people and Malta over 100.

The UNHCR also says almost 3,500 people have died or gone missing on the journey. Over half the migrants trying to reach Europe come from the Syria, and another one-in-five is from Afghanistan.

“The numbers of people on the move have not been seen for over 70 years,” Bishop David says. This problem is not going to go away soon, he says. “The end won’t be in sight, really, until we resolve the wars and people are able to live in security.”

Even if the wars stop tomorrow, four million Syrian people are living outside Syria and half the remaining people are displaced too, having left their homes, their villages and their towns. Rebuilding the region is a long-term task, and even if the wars ended tomorrow they cannot go home on Tuesday.

Bishop David says the challenge to Churches, governments and agencies in Europe is to work together on short-term responses, and medium to long-term situation.

When people began to appear in the parks and squares in central Athens having come from the ferry boats from the islands, the churches in Athens responded immediately.

Saint Paul’s Anglican Church and the other churches saw the need to co-ordinate their response and have drawn on their own limited resources to reach out together. This response has brought together Anglicans, the Greek Orthodox archdiocese, the Roman Catholic Jesuit refugee service, the Salvation Army, and the Greek Evangelical Church. This is on-the-ground ecumenism in action. Years and years of dialogue are now bearing fruit.

But Bishop David is worried that the rest of Europe fails to see that these people are human beings who deserve basic humanitarian assistance while their status is sorted out.

Christians and churches have a role to play in ensuring the truth of the refugee crisis is told without exaggeration. Bishop David says: “There is often exaggeration in some of the secular media. Sometimes this plays into people’s fear about the foreigner, fears of Islam, and all sorts of fears. I think we need to be clear, as Christians around the world, in making sure the truth is being told about this: that people are fleeing war zones, are fleeing persecution and are needing protection.”

Meanwhile, winter is closing in and threatens to make the sea-crossings even more treacherous for people fleeing war, persecution, and poverty. On one day alone in the past week or two, 22 people drowned in two shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea. On another day, the Greek coastguard rescued 242 refugees whose wooden boat sank north of the island of Lesvos. At least three people drowned, including two small boys.

‘The waves of the Aegean are not just washing up dead refugees, dead children, but [also] the very civilisation of Europe,’ says the Greek Prime Minister (Photograph: Antonio Bronic/Reuters)

Lifeless bodies are washing up on Greek and Turkish shores, including three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose death prompted global outrage. The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, says: “The waves of the Aegean are not just washing up dead refugees, dead children, but [also] the very civilisation of Europe.”

The number of refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey has risen in risen week from 4,500 to 7,000 a day. More than 218,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Europe by sea last month [October 2015] – a record for any month and about the same number as the total number who arrived in 2014.

The UNHCR is warning that harsh winter conditions across Europe could lead to “a tragedy at any moment.”

Kate O’Sullivan, who works in Greece with Save the Children, says the winter months could be devastating. “The waves will continue to get higher, the water will get rougher,” she says. “Every time a boat goes down, it always seems to be the children who have drowned. Frankly, I am terrified for what the weather’s going to be like this winter.”

Freezing temperatures, heavy rains, and strong storms have not slowed down the surge of refugees (Photograph: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

But freezing temperatures, heavy rains, and strong storms across Europe have not slowed down the surge of refugees. These people were desperate before they ever left. They are desperate now. And they face a winter with little protection from the cold, with no weather-proofing kits, with damaged tents, without winter clothes. They need fuel, unconditional cash, kits, clothes, coal, stoves and blankets.

“The immediate imperative is to provide shelter. It cannot be that in the Europe of 2015 people are left to fend for themselves, sleeping in fields,” Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, says. “Every day counts,” he adds. “Otherwise we will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably.”

Us has produced prayer cards providing guided reflections for each Sunday during Advent, inviting people to pray for refugees around the world as we light our Advent candles.

An example of the way the Church is responding to this crisis is the decision by the Anglican Diocese in Europe and the Anglican mission agency Us (formerly USPG) to fund an emergency centre for refugees at the remote Pharos Lighthouse on the Greek island of Lesvos.

The refugees arrive cold and wet having crossed 15 km from Turkey, typically making the journey in small rubber boats crowded with up to 50 people each.

Often these dangerous crossings are at night to avoid the Turkish coastguard patrols by day. Attracted by the beam of the lighthouse, they land on the rocky shore, soaked through, tired and hungry. Yet they are still 6 km from the nearest village, Klio, a six-hour walk across rugged, rock-strewn terrain. They need dry clothes, food, medical care and shelter before they can continue their journey to safety.

Local volunteers have been doing what they can to help them. I heard over these past few days how their work is getting a further boost with funding from Us and support from the Anglican chaplaincy in Greece.

Two abandoned buildings next to the lighthouse are being turned into a changing area and a field kitchen. Tents are being provided as shelter and volunteers are working there around the clock, seven days a week, providing food, clothing and medicines. These volunteers have also asked for ropes to help refugees climb up the rocky shores, safety helmets and headgear for the children and babies, wetsuits, night vision binoculars, heaters, lighting and walky-talkies.

Rachel Parry, Us Director for Global Relations, describes this as just one “small but highly significant response that is benefitting hundreds of very vulnerable refugees at a critical stage of their journey.”

The light of the lighthouse on Lesvos can lead the fleeing refugees to either a perilous end on the rocky shore or to hope for the future provided by these volunteers.

I listened to those stories in Cambridge over the past few days, those stories of Us and how the Diocese in Europe are trying to be lights of hope in this dismal, dark winter.

There is a real danger that because of the violence this weekend, the very people who are fleeing the violence of ISIS in Syria and their allies in the Middle East, will become their victims yet again, being blamed for violence perpetrated by people who are their very oppressors.

But despite all that is happening, there is hope. And we can be beacons of hope. We can show in how we live our life this coming Advent that we believe, that we want, good to triumph over evil, and to show that the Light of Christ shines in our hearts.

Throughout Advent this year, Us is appealing for donations to fund the Diocese in Europe as it reaches out to refugees arriving throughout Europe, and the Diocese in Europe has asked Us to be the official agency for Anglican churches on these islands to channel donations for its work.

The Advent candles on the Advent wreath represent the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary, all pointing to Christ in the midst of darkness, despite the disasters of famines, earthquakes and wars.

Despite all this, there is hope. And we can be beacons of hope. We can show in how we live our life this coming Advent that we believe, that we want, good to triumph over evil, and to show that the Light of Christ shines in our hearts.

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at Morning Prayer in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, on 15 November 2015.

Where can the refugees find the lights of hope across Europe this winter? (Photograph: Picasa/Kate O'Sullivan/Save the Children)


Heavenly Father,
whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil
and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life:
Grant that we, having this hope,
may purify ourselves even as he is pure;
that when he shall appear in power and great glory,
we may be made like him
in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Gracious Lord,
in this holy sacrament you give substance to our hope.
Bring us at the last to that pure life for which we long,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Mark 13: 1-8

1 Καὶ ἐκπορευομένου αὐτοῦ ἐκ τοῦ ἱεροῦ λέγει αὐτῷ εἷς τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ, Διδάσκαλε, ἴδε ποταποὶ λίθοι καὶ ποταπαὶ οἰκοδομαί. 2 καὶ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Βλέπεις ταύτας τὰς μεγάλας οἰκοδομάς; οὐ μὴ ἀφεθῇ ὧδε λίθος ἐπὶ λίθον ὃς οὐ μὴ καταλυθῇ.

3 Καὶ καθημένου αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν κατέναντι τοῦ ἱεροῦ ἐπηρώτα αὐτὸν κατ' ἰδίαν Πέτρος καὶ Ἰάκωβος καὶ Ἰωάννης καὶ Ἀνδρέας, 4 Εἰπὸν ἡμῖν πότε ταῦτα ἔσται, καὶ τί τὸ σημεῖον ὅταν μέλλῃ ταῦτα συντελεῖσθαι πάντα. 5 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἤρξατο λέγειν αὐτοῖς, Βλέπετε μή τις ὑμᾶς πλανήσῃ: 6 πολλοὶ ἐλεύσονται ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου λέγοντες ὅτι Ἐγώ εἰμι, καὶ πολλοὺς πλανήσουσιν. 7 ὅταν δὲ ἀκούσητε πολέμους καὶ ἀκοὰς πολέμων, μὴ θροεῖσθε: δεῖ γενέσθαι, ἀλλ' οὔπω τὸ τέλος. 8 ἐγερθήσεται γὰρ ἔθνος ἐπ' ἔθνος καὶ βασιλεία ἐπὶ βασιλείαν, ἔσονται σεισμοὶ κατὰ τόπους, ἔσονται λιμοί: ἀρχὴ ὠδίνων ταῦτα.

1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2 Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

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