Sunday, 19 March 2017

A heart for the helpless

Readings: Jeremiah 24: 1- 10, Luke 24: 13-35.

This is the third in our series of sermons where we are reflecting on what it means to see ourselves as a community in exile.   As Steve said, in his sermon introducing the series, two weeks ago, the idea for the series came from a reflection that Andy – Andy Jefferson – wrote a few months ago now – om which he suggested that we the church might fruitfully compare ourselves with the people of Israel when they were in exile in Babylon.  Today I would like us to revisit that idea before moving on to reflect on how, thinking of ourselves as exiles, might affect our thinking about helping the helpless in today’s society.

So first a short recap on the biblical background.  You’ll remember that around 600 BC Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was sacked by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar.  Their temple was destroyed and a large proportion of the population was deported to Babylon.  There are several books of the Bible which are concerned with this exile: what led to it, how the exiles fared in Babylon and how some of them returned to Judah in around 540 BC.  These include the Second Book of Kings, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, etc.  

Now the Old Testament gives us, amongst other things, a history of the people of Israel.  It describes the various phases of their history.  Perhaps their most glorious phase was when they were ruled by the kings David and his son Solomon.  The Israelites looked back to this time as a golden era.  The period of the Exile in Babylon was, on the face of it, their most inglorious phase.

Andy, drawing on the work of various other theologians, pointed out to us that we, as Christians living in England in the early 21st century, might share more in common with the Israelites living in exile than with the Israelites living under David and Solomon.   

For much of the past 2000 years Christians have often had a fair amount of power in countries where Christianity is practiced.  For example in England, since the time of Henry VIII, the head of state – the king or, as now, the queen - has also been head of the Church.  And over the last say 1500 years the church, in England, has accumulated much property and land.  It has become so wealthy that it has been able to pay its staff, if not well, at least enough to live on.  These times can be thought of as being similar to the time of David and Solomon.

But now things are different: the power and influence of the church is in decline.  It is running out of money, closing it church buildings, laying off staff, etc.  Not everywhere of course and also gradually.  When the church had more influence it seemed that the values of society as a whole were more closely aligned with Christian values.  Last Sunday Philp talked, amongst other things, about Sunday trading laws. 

When shops had to be closed on Sundays, it felt as if the State was enacting the fourth of the Ten Commandments which is to keep the Sabbath holy.  When those Sunday trading laws were relaxed it felt, perhaps, as if something had been lost.  We who are members of the Church may feel we are increasingly alienated from the rest of society, as Philip also explored with us last week.  We may feel ourselves in exile – like the Israelites living in exile in Babylon

There are various possible responses here: to deny what is happening, to moan about it, to resist it and to adjust to it.  What did the Israelites do when they were in exile?

In the Israelites’ case it wasn’t possible to deny what was happening to them.  In our case the exile hasn’t been so dramatic.  We, unlike the Israelites, haven’t physically been repatriated.  Though at this point it is worth remembering that about 20 million people in this world do physically live in exile as refugees. 
Our exile has been slower and more gradual.  Denial is possible.  But the statistics are difficult to ignore entirely.   Here’s just one example.  This shows some data from the Government-funded and well-respected British Social Attitudes Survey.  It shows that the number of those that claim allegiance to the Church of England is falling whereas the number of those that claim no allegiance to any religion is rising.  Whether this is a symptom or effect of other changes in society I am not sure.  I don’t think we should just regard it as a failure of the church: as if we had all only tried a bit harder this wouldn’t have happened.  God is working his purpose out – even here though these trends – as our reading from Jeremiah this morning reminds us.

Nevertheless many of us, I count myself, here, don’t feel ourselves to be in exile.  I do not live in a refugee camp.  Last week Philip challenged us to see ourselves as living in exile.  I can just about accept that challenge but to tell the truth I do not want to feel like a refugee.

Do we moan about being in exile?  Of course the Israelites grieved over the loss of Jerusalem, in particular their temple there, and their deportation.  Several of the psalms express this grief.  The most famous being Psalm 137 which begins: 
By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?

Are we to weep about our situation as Christians today?  This seems a bit of an over-reaction.  I guess people will grieve when their local church closes down, when laws are changed, but surely we must, at some point, get over it, move on.

The next possible response is resistance.  Of course the Israelites initially resisted invasion by Nebuchadnezzar.  This is recorded at the end of the Second Book of Kings and of the Second Book of Chronicles.  But having been deported, what resistance was possible?  And the final possible response is adjustment.  Did the Israelites adjust to their new situation?

The Old Testament Book of Daniel contains stories of some of the exiles in Babylon mainly through the eyes of its main character: a wise man, a prophet called Daniel and an exile himself.

The book starts by telling us how Daniel and some his friends end up working for King Nebuchadnezzar.  The king, seeing that the some of the Judeans were ‘without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight’ (as it says in Chapter 1 verse 4) co-opts these Judeans to work for him.  Daniel and his friends are assimilated as it were, and not just assimilated, they – albeit with a few trials along the way such as being thrown into a fiery furnace - do well in the Babylonian civil service and are promoted.

But Daniel and his friends never lose sight of their fundamental identity as citizens of another country.   They keep t to their customs and forms of worship.  Surprisingly this rubs off on the Babylonians.  Finally Nebuchadnezzar declares:
‘Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven,
for all his works are truth,
    and his ways are justice;
and he is able to bring low
    those who walk in pride.’
So despite being forced to live far from home, Daniel and his friends do not give in to despair but continue to believe that they are still the people of God and are still to mark themselves out as distinct.  As a result of the wisdom that God gives them, they are recognised as useful by the Babylonian king and rise to become his wisest and most trusted servants. Still in exile but with influence.

So what are we to learn from this?  I think it is that both resistance and adjustment to exile are necessary.  If we see ourselves as entirely alienated from modern day culture we will be tempted to stand apart, to keep ourselves uncontaminated by what is going on around us, to have absolutely no influence.  We have to adjust: to developments in new technology, for example.

On the other hand if we entirely adopt the ways of the world then we are not able to embody Christ, to represent him and to bring anything distinctive by way of good news, to the people we live amongst.  We have to resist some of the secular trends: widening gaps between rich and poor for example.

What does this all mean for our mission to the people of South Oxford and beyond?  Andy wrote his reflection in the context of our thinking, here at St Matthew’s, about growth as a church.  Here is one of the things he says in his reflection:
‘My suggestion is that running a Start course or launching other new programmes, whilst not necessarily a bad thing, doesn’t address or recognise this shift: we, as a church in this nation, are in Exile. Our community no longer looks to us for a framework of meaning for their lives. We are simply one voice among many. And we have the disadvantage of being a voice that people think they have already heard, so they are less inclined to seek us out for a second hearing.’
And I have heard many times over the past few months that, if we are to grow as church, we need to be smarter in our thinking about how we are to do this and in particular work out, more clearly, what growth means, in particular for St Matthew’s as opposed to church growth in general.  And in this we need to work out what we, as a church, have that is distinctive to offer to those around us, as opposed to clamouring for their attention and expecting to be heard.  Listening to what those around us want and need might be a start.

One aspect of our mission is to have a heart for the helpless.  Seeing ourselves as exiles has, I think, a big effect on our thinking here.  Exiles themselves need help. They are a marginalised section of society.  But God has a heart for exiles.

In today’s passage we heard Jeremiah’s prophecy for the exiles in Babylon.  I’ll read the relevant bit again:
‘Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians.  I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up.  I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.'

Seeing ourselves in need of help ourselves changes our relationship with those around us who, perhaps more obviously, need help.  We should no longer regard ourselves as the dispensers of largesse, as perhaps we have been tempted to in the past.  In this country, the church used to be the main provider of hospitals, schools, relief for the poor and other aspects of welfare provision.

Of course the church now has hardly any role in health care provision in this country – although in other parts of the world – particularly Africa – it still does.  I spent a bit of time last week talking to a student from Cameroon on the course I was helping to run.   He told me that around 60% of health care provision in his country is funded by the church.  And we ourselves still have a small role in health care provision in Africa though our involvement with initiatives such as those of the Semiliki Trust in the Congo.

The church also has a diminishing role in education in this country.   Although about one third - 7,000 of the 20,000 - state funded schools in England are still, to varying degrees, faith based, and of these 68% are Church of England schools, 30% are Roman Catholic schools and 2% are of other faiths, the extent to which education directly reflects our perspectives on say Sunday trading is clearly in decline.  We, St Matthew; of course, have quite close links with St Ebbe’s School situated in this parish. 

And finally it’s a long time since the church in this country had a major role in poverty relief but we still have a bit of a part to play though organisations such as Christians Against Poverty. 

We can hardly deny our declining role in our capacity to help the helpless with respect to health, education and poverty.  Moaning about it seems quite frankly pointless given that the decline started decades, if not centuries, ago.  

So is this all too depressing for words?  Resisting the trends also doesn’t seem likely to be effective but this isn’t to say we should lose hope and/or give up.   No, we need to rethink what our role should be in the light of changing circumstances and to adjust our actions accordingly following the example of Daniel and his friends.

Perhaps we should stop trying to go it alone, to develop and run, specifically Christian organisations to the problems faced by the people around but, instead, to work in partnership with others who share a similar perspective.  Perhaps we could even work in partnership with others of different faiths.  Perhaps we could be more humble about our likely contribution.  Perhaps we could move from provision of direct help to advocating for justice in the provision of help.

Finally two pictures by Caravaggio – an Italian painter working at the turn of the 16th century - that symbolise the change in thinking about the helpless required when we see ourselves as exiles.  Caravaggio was hardly a saint, in the conventional meaning of that word, but he was a painter who tried to make his faith real.

Both are pictures of the Supper at Emmaus – the culmination of the story we heard in our gospel reading today and comparing them suggests a flip in the way Caravaggio saw this event similar to the flip in our thinking we might get if we start to see ourselves as exiles rather than as in charge.

The first picture was painted in 1601 when Caravaggio was feeling confident in his abilities and included by the church.  It portrays the moment when the two male disciples, seated at the table, recognise who their companion, on the journey to Emmaus, is.  On the table is a delicious meal of bread, chicken, fruit and wine. 

The second painting is also a of the Supper at Emmaus – painted by Caravaggio five years later in 1606, at a particular turbulent time in his life when he was clearly feeling less confident about his place in society.   In this painting the gestures and expressions are less dramatic.  On this table is just bread, a bowl, a tin plate and a jug.  There is still an innkeeper looking on.   But in this picture there is a new, fifth, character, an elderly female serving maid, her worried face downcast, seemingly engrossed in her own thoughts. 

The 1601 version is perfectly balanced but the presence of the maid seems to unbalance the version of 1606.   The inclusion of the female maid servant would have offended the wealthy male church leaders for whom Caravaggio worked and who saw themselves as the successors of the disciples.  Michael Frost, in his book Exiles, suggests the maid represents the poor and marginalised: and all those who yearn for a place at Christ’s table, thought they might not yet recognise their desire to share Christ’s food.  If we see ourselves as exiles we might begin to identify with the servant at the table rather than the disciples who are already seated, and if so we will see the world differently.

By recognising that we are citizens of a different kingdom, a kingdom in exile, one in which the king himself has voluntarily exiled himself, we might begin to have a true heart for the helpless.