Faith is not fanaticism
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
21 December 2014, 10:30 (THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT)Back at the end of November there was a newspaper interview with Andrew White, the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’ who has been ordered home by Archbishop Justin for his own safety with a £36 million bounty on his head set by ISIS.
Canon White speaks to the reporter in a pub in Liphook in the green English countryside where many people go to church on a Sunday.
He declares ‘their biggest question is: ‘Should I have fish or chicken for lunch?’
By contrast we learn that In parts of the Middle East, Christianity is in danger of extinction.
In 1991 there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq.
Today there may be as few as 300,000.
In Syria and Egypt, in places where there have been churches for almost two millennia, Christians are being persecuted and killed and their places of worship destroyed.
We on this Fourth Sunday of Advent in Rochester are in the midst of the carol service season – this church has been filled with people and music telling of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
But now the Biblical lands are seeing religious fanaticism destroying the life of faith.
When Andrew White finally left Baghdad in October, it was to Jerusalem that he went first, where he has been working on building relationships between Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders.
“Jerusalem is bad” he says “and getting worse, particularly in my last week when four rabbis were murdered in a synagogue.
But it’s a holiday camp compared with Iraq.”
Yet this past week in December has also seen the siege and death of Australians in a Sydney city centre café, and the horrific massacre of 132 children and 9 adults in a Pakistani school in Peshawar on Tuesday.
These brutal attacks are now an almost everyday occurrence through the world and most of them are motivated by fanaticism and religious fanaticism at that.
And it makes us timid and critical of our Christian inheritance.
In our own land, our children do not know the Christmas story and if they do have a school nativity play, it might be far from helpful in knowing what Christmas is about.
The most popular Christmas play now staged in schools is an ‘updated nativity’ featuring characters such as aliens, punk fairies, footballers, lobsters, napkins, drunk spacemen, Elvis, recycling bins and even a Sir Alan Sugar-style 'Lord Christmas'
Seven per cent of schools even refuse to call the production a Christmas or nativity play, preferring instead ‘Winter Celebration’, ‘Seasonal Play’ or ‘End of Year Concert’.
The recent survey that brought this to the newspapers showed that just 35% of children still sing traditional carols and hymns, while 26% are instead given Christmas pop songs such as 'Rocking Around The Christmas Tree' to perform.
This is the world of 2015 in which we the Church have to recognise as the realm of our mission and outreach.
We live as if the church will always be more or less as we know it.
We think that its clergy and leaders will miraculously appear from other places and that our civilisation which is founded on Judaeo-
Christian values and marked by an openness and tolerance forged in the vision of the compassion of God in Jesus Christ, is secure.
Let us look at our Bible readings to see where we really stand this morning.
Our Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel takes us to Jerusalem where King David is now settled with the Ark of the Covenant containing the Law brought there.
David tells Nathan the prophet that he wishes to build the Ark a permanent home which at present resides in a tent.
But God does not want a house of cedar or stone but instead he will make a David a house, a dynastic kingdom that shall be established from generation to generation.
King David and indeed his people yearn like us for security and stability – a permanent home with the protection of buildings and material resources.
God though does not offer his people this but instead he will create a family where blood and familial love will bring a different dimension to the nature and values of society.
Eventually, the Son of David, Jesus, will inaugurate a family formed by grace in which all people, all ages and even eternity itself belong.
We who live in permanent dwellings and paved and lit environs can easily be deluded as to our permanence, importance and power.
Without God we are as nothing.
There is no permanence in this life: our New Testament readings throw us the lifeline of belonging to a house not made by us but by God himself – this is the life of faith.
St Paul in his Letter to the Romans is writing about the obedience of faith, something so different from fanaticism where obedience is blind and often mindless, heartless and utterly cruel.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews.
Faith involves the power and experience which we can neither possess nor own nor manipulate; faith like love and hope is mystery.
And this mystery is the grace of God speaking through the angel to Mary – the grace that will become incarnate in Jesus the Saviour.
Mary and Joseph and Jesus, the Holy Family, whom we will soon welcome into our churches’ cribs, are not warriors or politicians and yet they involve us in battles and power.
The poverty of Jesus’ birth and death is not incidental detail but a profound insight into the purposes and values of God living amongst his creation.
Christmas is not merely a consumer bonanza and a material knees-up. Certainly it is about peace and joy and goodwill – and also frivolity, fun and humour.
Christmas is the real face of faith which demands peace and justice in the name of God.
We are living in a world and a British society where the growing divisions between rich and poor are a scandal and injustice to God and his Christ.
And the suffering of Christians throughout the world from fanatical barbarism is an evil no different from the massacre of the Holy Innocents.
Love is costly and love is both gentle and bold.
We as Christians have to face up to the facts brought back to this land by Canon Andrew White.
When Isis soldiers attacked the Christian town of Qaraqosh in August they cut a boy in half.
That boy is our brother in Christ’s family.
And not only has his life been foully and barbarously taken but the conflict could spell the end of centuries of Christian life in Iraq.
The Bishop of Mosul said recently that for the first time in 2,000 years there was no church in Nineveh, the ancient city that is now part of Mosul.
And the same will be true of Iran and Syria and Lebanon.
Even in Istanbul, Christian churches and communities are being systematically persecuted and eliminated as reported by William Dalrymple in his 1998 book, From the Holy Mountain.
What can we do? First of all we need to regain that corporate sense of identity and salvation that comes from our Jewish forefathers and is re-expressed by John Donne, no man is an island entire of itself...
Salvation is not individual survival but the redemption of God’s holy people.
Today, we remember the role of Mary in God’s story of faith and love. It is a role that continues in the intercessory prayer of heaven where Mary and all the saints in light encourage and strengthen us in our pilgrimage and our efforts to build the Kingdom in our own day.
And after prayer, there must be action.
We can give money this Christmas to support the refugees and persecuted communities in Iraq and Syria suffering for their faith but we must also stand up publically and demand action from our political representatives.
And we must tell the story of Christmas and live its love and truth and beauty and peace.
We must regain a voice in this land, where all its citizens are given a proper and open education in the Christian vision that has brought us parliamentary democracy, human rights and dignity and the societal structures of compassion and mercy that we call the Welfare State.
This is the Christmas celebration in 2014. Humility and love must find their attractive voice and music in our lives.
True peace lies in a manger –
All human powers take heed:
Our wealth and pride bring ruin
In war and want and greed.
God meets us as a brother –
Lost, hunted as a prey;
In politics and power –
The victim and the Way.
All praise to God be given
By loving hearts on earth
For bringing us redemption
In Jesus’ lowly birth.
© Neil Thompson 2006