s195e01 Final Services at Somerton Park 14/10/01 Sunday 28
"The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful ...." 2 Timothy 2:11-13
One could well imagine that the suicide terrorists in the four planes which caused such tragic loss of life on September the 11th last would have rejoiced in such sentiments. They believed they were dying with their God, and they, without doubt believed, they would live with their God. I certainly cannot begin to comprehend the depth of the anguish of those family members who have lost loved ones in those horrendous events. They remain in our prayers.
Our world has changed since September the 11th.
And I believe we need to take seriously the fact that those terrorists would have rejoiced and been encouraged by the sentiments of my text.
The saying is sure, yet in the end they and we cannot be sure, not about the reality of the sentiment, but about just which God is being referred to here. If it is a competition between Allah and Yahweh, the saying might well be sure, but we are still left in a quandary - how are we to act - and particularly towards others? Are we too called to be martyrs for the Christian god like those who were prepared to be martyrs for their god? Is it a competition - that the true god will be determined by those who are prepared to endure more for their god than others? Will the right god win if I am successful over others, if I win the fight? If such is the case I would be prepared to be counted as an atheist.
The God I worship does not need the contribution I put in the plate each Sunday. The God I worship does not need me to sacrifice my life, and certainly does not require me to murder other people and myself in the process for any reason whatsoever. The God I worship does not ask the relatives and friends of the innocent killed in those tragic events - to accept their pain and loss for some "higher good".
Of course, for you here at St Philip's Somerton Park, the world also changed in a rather less dramatic way since September the 9th when I last spoke to you and began to prepare to move house on the 14th, to the parish of Lockleys.
I always remember an Archdeacon saying that he was always wary about saying that God calls particular people to particular places. He told the story of a young member of the clergy going to a country town and saying to the people that he believed God had called him there. The parish rejoiced when they heard this sentiment because they had had a difficult task getting someone to come to the fairly remote town. A couple of years later he announced that God had called him somewhere else. A rather exasperated warden said to the Archdeacon afterwards: "I just wish God would make up his mind!" (I am sorry - it's a bit hard to make this into a non-gender specific statement). The reality is that "our" god is often there for our comfort and reassurance rather than especially for anyone else's.
However my own perception of the events of the 11th were much more coloured by a requiem for a young friend of ours. Again, while I have no doubt whatsoever that this particular lad is now enjoying that closer presence of our loving and heavenly Father, I find it difficult to say that God called him into heaven, for that would be to say that God willed the very normal pain and grief of the loss that his family continue to suffer as a result of his death.
The god of the terrorists of September the 11th (and I suspect it isn't Allah) led them to kill others in the name of that god. We need to see that precisely the same words are used in our own sacred texts which could well be used for the same purposes. Indeed of course they have already been used like that down the centuries.
Even if individuals don't agree with the conclusions of my sermon, please acknowledge that my words stem from care for other people - not some "liberal" theology, ideological or philosophical bias, or political persuasion.
There is undoubtedly only one God in this universe. There is therefore no competition. God will reign despite what human beings will continue to do to one another. I doubt whether God cares tuppence whether the name Yahweh or Allah is used.
It is exceedingly curious that I had got to this stage in the preparation of my sermon when I received an e-mailed comment about some of my other words. It was not a criticism, but an observation that, not only is it true that if you see the Son you see the Father (John 14.9), but it is equally true that: "if you see the father, you will see the son" (thanks Charles :-). And when I came back to my sermon, I suddenly realised that of course I was not commenting on a text from the Old Testament at all, but the words of St Paul, or whoever was the actual author of the Pastoral epistles. I had tricked myself, when I used the word in the Jerusalem Bible for the LORD in the Old Testament - Yahweh.
The question of a God ready to exact retribution (" if we deny him, he will also deny us") was not the God of the Old Testament but the God of the New ... Is this the same personage we are elsewhere encouraged to address as "Daddy". How do we reconcile Jesus on the Cross with the demand for complete obedience and a desire for revenge on those who stray?
This can only, in my own mind at least, be reconciled with Jesus being the person who died for others, and it is not the faithfulness we show to Jesus in our devotions that is important that we follow, but that we too are true to his mission to live acknowledging God in others that is important.
I recently received a parish magazine where the editor quoted an Anglican publication, with these words: "We must remember that our salvation lies not in the degree of embellishment or lack thereof in our worship services but in the true repentance of sin and faith in the atonement Our Lord and Saviour made for us on Calvary's Cross". I point out that this is all about "our" salvation, and for "us". It leads me to question, what on earth are we being saved from? And if it only includes "us" I suspect that the Cross - for all it truly is for all people - can only lead to further alienation rather than less.
The essence of idolatry in the Old Testament was not that the idol was a material object, but that it was inextricably linked to the maker. The idol was his or hers; another idol would be someone else's. Competition is inevitable. So the difficulty with idolatry is not that God is jealous (for love is not jealous - 1 Co 13.4) but that the real God of the whole universe, by definition, does not have favourites ... (Acts 10.34) So of course, my correspondent is indeed right, and Jesus is only reflecting the same truth proclaimed in the Old Testament where time and again, God's particular concern for the widow, the orphan and the alien is clearly spelled out, time and time again. The God of the Old Testament is as strong on care for the other as Jesus is - and I suspect as the teachings of Allah show also.
The revenge exacted on us and on all humanity "if we deny" Jesus is precisely to live in a world where competition and atrocities continue to happen. It is only the Cross which can save us from competition and atrocities. And please I am not saying that the United States has done anything to deserve what happened on September the 11th. Nobody deserves that - and our theology has to reflect that truth.
I can only speak for Christians and the Christian faith from which I spring, but I have no doubt that God, however he or she is named, has no part in the atrocities wreaked on the people in New York, on the women in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, or anywhere else.
Inevitably, I suppose, after I leave and when a new priest is appointed here at Somerton Park, there will be some who will appreciate the particular gifts he or she will bring, but let me say that it is not and never has been a competition. If we are looking at a priest who is appointed to this parish as someone who will "take my side" in a difference in a theological perception, then something is seriously wrong. Some people have made the comment that September the 11th was precipitated by a perception that the United States was favouring the Israelis over the Palestinians. I cannot say anything about the truth or otherwise of the claim or the perception - but I can say that the dynamics seem very similar to ordinary "diocesan" or "parish politics".
I suspect that if we look with horror in the events of a month ago and fail to see that they have a message for us all and how we treat others, then sadly atrocities, insignificant or world shaking, will continue to happen as individuals are alienated rather than affirmed. We can be certain that it will be humanity who will be the loser and no one will be saved from anything.
And yet there is no need to end up on such a bleak and threatening point, for the writer to Timothy says: even "if we are faithless, he remains faithful ...." 2 Timothy 2:13 God's mercy never ends, for us and for all people. We read in our first lesson that God cured the commander of the enemy forces, Naaman, (2 Ki 5.1) and Jesus in the Gospel reading, continues that same work when he cures the lepers, the outcasts, and especially when he pronounces a blessing on the one heretic amongst them (Luk 17.11f).
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