Pricking the Bubble

September 23, 2018

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Exodus 19.10-25 and Matthew 8.23-34 at Evensong on Sunday 23rd September 2018, the 17th after Trinity.

One of the themes that links our two bible readings this afternoon is the holiness laws of Jewish culture (leading up to the first century CE). In our OT reading, the prophet Moses is about to meet God on Mount Sinai, to receive the law (the Ten Commandments) about 1,500 years before Christ. He is given instructions by the Lord to ensure the people are cleansed and consecrated. When God visits the mountain it becomes holy, and if any unclean thing touches the mountain then it is to be put to death.

This summer was a strange one because I had two encounters with countries where genocide is part of recent history. As part of the School of Mission we made our first visit to Rwanda, where in 1994 over 1.1 million people were put to death in the space of just 100 days. The propaganda that preceeded the genocide dehumanized the social class of Tutsis, and portrayed them as ‘unclean’ and called for them to be put to death.

Extremist propaganda was pushed out in print and on radio, citing their own Ten Commandments that Hutus must obey. Hutus who were married to Tutsis, or employed Tutsis, or did business with Tutsis were considered traitors, and large sectors of the economy were racially segregated: only Hutus were allowed to be in politics, the civil service and the military and police. Tutsis were labelled ‘cockroaches’ who must be squashed. And that is what they did, when 85% of the Tutsi population was wiped out in just three months, and hundreds of thousands of Tutsi women were raped in an act of mass abuse.

I met one man, who, like me, ran a theological school for training clergy and laity. His father was killed in front of his eyes when he was five years old. When he was a university lecturer he was dismissed and sent to teach in a secondary school.

My second genocide encounter of the summer was our family camping trip across the continent, of which Auschwitz in Poland was our destination. We felt it was important that our children see with their own eyes man’s worst inhumanity to man. In Auschwitz 1.1 million Jews were murdered, alongside Roma and Polish people in the Jewish Holocaust. Propaganda fuelled the popular concept that Jews were sub-human: the Nurenburg laws forbade Jews from working in the civil service, and Germans from racial defilement by marrying a Jew, a Roma or a black person. The Nazi’s turned killing people in to a profitable business, stripping them of their last vestiges of wealth and clothing, and even selling their hair to be woven into cloth for the lining of uniforms.

What stunned me on my visit to Auschwitz was the story that the wife of the camp commandant said it was the best place she’d ever lived – her house was on the other side of the wire fence and it’s where she brought up her children; and that the SS soliders would finish their shift, after killing thousands of people who had arrived on the train that day, and go and have a beer together in the café on the other side of the camp wire fence. Racial hatred and murder had been normalised.

Our gospel reading shows how Jesus subverts the traditional holiness laws. The traditional holiness laws say that if you touch something that is unclean then you also become unclean. Jesus goes to a place that was considered unclean for Jews. The Gadarenes was a Gentile region on the other side of Lake Galilee. They bred pigs there for Gentile consumption, because, of course, Jews wouldn’t eat pork. More than that, the two men who approach Jesus are doubly unclean – they live amongst tombs, the place the dead (which makes you unclean) and they are possessed by evil spirits – so many in fact that they were enough to drown a large herd of pigs.

Jesus isn’t made unclean when he encounters the unholy: Jesus makes the unclean clean again. His holiness overpowers the evil that leads to death. Jesus’ presence brings safety and calm. He gives life back to the two men who were possessed. Jesus establishes a common humanity that is not divided by race as it was in Nazi Germany or social class as it was in Rwanda. Jesus reveals that which is hidden to eyes that cannot see to the other side of the wire fence, to the suffering and injustice that lies beyond. Jesus exposes the smooth words and comforting lies of the radio propaganda. He provides a plumb-line for truth and demonstrates in his own resurrection, that life in and through him has victory over an unjust death.

When I lived in Amsterdam we sometimes had some members of our church who belonged to what we called the ‘expat bubble’. These were privileged people who floated in their protective wrapping around the world, posted for a few years here in Asia, there in the US, a ‘mercifully’ short stint in Africa, (‘Darling, I couldn’t have coped for longer!’), and passing through global headquarters in Amsterdam in a bid towards the golden prize of directorship. The bubble includes business class flights, and limousine taxis to the five-star hotel or the expat rental apartment, safely protected from the unclean and unwashed masses of humanity who live in the flavellas and shanty towns beneath the flight path.

In our church these expats had to mix with everyone, because Jesus has broken down every barrier between human people. They would perhaps for the first time in their lives be sitting having a meal with a victim of human trafficking, or who started life in a shanty town. Jesus welcomes every one to his table, and he reveals himself indiscriminately: to rich and poor, to Roma and Jew, to Hutu and Tutsi, and everyone in between. This is the gospel. This is good news for us, and for our country and our county.

It stikes me that Hampshire has bubble characteristics. I love living here, but we must acknowledge how privileged many of us are and how protected we are, in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to distinguish propaganda from false news and in which popular racism is on the rise. Our social media guides us to commentators that soothe our conscience, and most of us don’t buy a newspaper that doesn’t align with our political views.

However it doesn’t take much to prick the bubble. I wish I had longer to tell you about the wonderful National Cathedrals Conference this week in Manchester, about the shocking number of homeless people who lived on the streets there, and multicultural vibrancy of a city that is very different from Hampshire… how do we negotiate a social contract for the whole nation?

When Jesus brought his holiness to an unclean place it wasn’t pretty. He disrupted the economy (I doubt the owner of the pigs could claim on his insurance that he suffered from an act of God); the pig-herders were out of a job; all for the sake of two good-for-nothings who used to live out of the way in the tombs. No wonder the people of the city asked Jesus to leave them alone.

When we come to this cathedral we encounter the same Jesus as the gospel of Matthew portrays. The numinous quality of this building and our worship evokes the divine presence of God. However he calls us not to live in a bubble-wrap world of comfort; rather he pricks our conscience to reveal a world that is crying out for justice. What are we going to do? Ask him to leave? Or are we going to respond like the disciples in the sinking boat: ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’