Refusing division and hatred

January 27, 2019

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Preached by The Very Revd Catherine Ogle at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 27th January 2017, Holocaust Memorial Day, the Fourth of Epiphany.

Today we commemorate the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the huge camp in which human beings were enslaved and exterminated.  A crime against humanity of staggering scale carried out by German Nazis in occupied Poland, murdering Jews, prisoners of war, gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses and homosexuals. As the chief Rabbi Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said this week, what started with hateful words became hateful actions.  He reflected on the Holocaust on R4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ and warned of the corrosion of our public discourse and the dangers therein.  We all have a responsibility to speak carefully, and as HM the Queen has said, recognise someone else’s point of view.  As the Rabbi said, we all have a responsibility to challenge speech that encourages hatred of individuals or of groups or nations.

Jesus was born into dangerous and uncertain times.  His people, the Jews, were beleaguered and under occupation by the Romans.  They longed for a Saviour.  St Luke tells us that the adult Jesus returned to his home village after his time of testing in the desert.  On the Sabbath day, in the synagogue, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah.  The text was of great significance, a text of ancient promise, carrying the history and the hope of the nation, it’s a text in tune with his mother’s song, the Magnificat.  The prophecy is of good news to the poor, freedom, healing, vindication, the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, for everyone. This is what Jesus choses to read.  And then in a dramatic moment as he has everyone’s attention, Jesus says, ‘today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Looking back now, we see the Son of God, the Word made flesh telling the people that the ancient word of God is fulfilled, in him.  God is with them.

In Nazareth, everyone was impressed, we are told, and amazed at such gracious words, joyful that the longed for change had begun.

So, what happens next is very telling and pertinent. If we carry on beyond the set text, just eight verses, we see a great change. The people who were so impressed with Jesus, these same people drive him out of town.

What happens in those eight verses is that Jesus challenges them to see and understand differently.  The message that infuriates them is that this good news isn’t just for them.  God’s justice and mercy is for everyone.

Jesus gives two examples from their own history, their own story, in which gentiles receive healing and blessing.  God’s grace is for everyone.  Including people they regard as outsiders.  Not their people.  Jesus enrages his home town and they are filled with murderous anger and want to throw him off a cliff.

So the crowd of people turn on him, as they will do again.

It maddens them to be reminded that Gods promises of mercy and justice are not just for them.  This is an intolerable threat to their sense of identity to their sense of themselves.  They want God’s blessings to have clear boundaries.

I’m struck by two things that seem very current.  Firstly the leadership that Jesus offers, is truthful.  He never tells people what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.  Real leadership, real friendship, real love is truthful.  Perhaps you are blessed with friends who will tell you the truth, in love.

Second we are all tempted to look after ourselves, hold our blessings close to our chest and exclude other people from the good things we enjoy.  But God is prodigiously generous. Jesus teaches us that generous sharing is the way to justice and joy.

So perhaps we can sympathise, with those people in Nazareth.  It’s really hard to hear a message against our own self-interest and sense of superiority.

But Jesus always does challenge those who defend their own interests and those who considers themselves better than others.  And faith in Jesus will continually challenge us when we build up our defences of superiority, self-interest and dislike.

Sadly we see what can happens when nations or faith groups follow a narrative of their own separateness and superiority.  Hate speech becomes the atrocities of Nazism, of the slave trade, of apartheid, of the atrocities of Isil.

I want though to finish with a story of faith and hope, and for me of continuing inspiration.  Leonard Wilson was Bishop of Singapore during the Second World War.  He ministered from the cathedral there, and was much loved, but was interned in Changi prison in 1943.  He, along with many others, was tormented and tortured, but survived with scars.  He later became Bishop of Birmingham and was a greatly loved pastor and a champion of socially progressive change in the church.

What so moved me in his story was his absolute refusal to hate his persecutors.  To help him, he used to practice picturing his persecutors as children, knowing that they were made in Gods image and they were still God’s beloved children despite their cruelty as adults. Somehow his loving spirit remained alive and pure, and as a result, later he saw former guards and torturers, become baptised and confirmed Christians. Imagine that, as Bishop, confirming your former persecutors.

He adamantly refused to have hatred in his heart.  He lived deeply from the promises of scripture and from its truth.  He refused to see the world in terms of us and them, he saw all people, as Gods children.  And his loving witness won people’s hearts.

We live in challenging times.  I hope that we will draw great strength and inspiration from the deep faith rooted in this place and Christs teachings.  I pray that we will seek truth, however challenging, that we will grow in love and confidence in our identity in Christ, that we will refuse prejudice and fear, and offer good news to all God’s children.