Sermon preached by Venerable Olivia Graham, Archdeacon of Berkshire, at the Benefice Service on Sunday 7th October at St Mary’s, Garsington.
Readings: Romans 8:31-end and Matthew 5:41-48
I believe that this is the last of the sermon series focussing on the Beatitudes, and Emma booked me a year ago, which was super-organised of her. I am so glad that it is in this church, not that Horspath and Cuddesdon aren’t lovely, but it is so nice to be back in the church where I served my first year after ordination, as a deacon in the Church of God, where my baby Sophie was baptised (she’s just graduated!), where Rob and Phil rampaged around the nave (Rob is now the vicar of Radley, Phil is a theatre teckie in Liverpool); where we were welcomed and loved as a family, and where my L plates were treated with good humour and tolerance. It’s lovely to be back.
This morning we look at this last Beatitude: Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven.
We have 2 wonderful readings to help us to throw light on this. First the extraordinary and very well known passage from Romans 8 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? and then the end of Matt 5, with the command to Love your enemies.
We are called to be a courageous church. Courageous people are whole-hearted. Their strength and their energy comes from a deep place within them. A place where they know that they are OK.
And we know that we are OK, because we know that we are deeply loved.
How do we live out our identity as a courageous church, as the courageous people of God in our world?
We do it by witnessing to the truth; to the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ; the good news of God’s love for the world and for each person in it, regardless of who they are. God’s love for all, regardless of race, religion, faith, tribe, sexuality, political affiliation, morality, occupation – none of this counts before God. All are welcome in the Kingdom. This is the truth of the Gospel; the Good news.
Where, when, how often are we reviled and persecuted for our belief in this Gospel? for owning this Gospel as being the way in which we try to live out our lives? For speaking out for the dignity and sanctity of life as God intended, when this is not a popular thing to do?
Cain said to God, Am I my brother’s keeper? He meant it as a sarcastic, rhetorical question. And the answer of course, which Cain didn’t want to hear, was yes, you are. You are your brother’s keeper, and your sister’s keeper. You are the guardian of the wellbeing of all God’s people. We are, together, each other’s keepers, each other’s advocates, each others torch-bearers and protectors of the flame of hope.
People may regard us oddly if we speak about our faith outside of church (in some churches it’s regarded as a little odd to speak of our faith inside the church – I’m sure this isn’t one of them!). But many people across the world today are reviled and persecuted for their faith. In Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Israel, Palestine. For some this leads to loss of livelihood, status, income, education. For others it leads to the ultimate act of witness, which calls for a courage most of us can only aspire to.
2013 – Eypyt, when President Morsi was removed from power, 100 Coptic churches were attacked within 24 hours. There wasn’t a single act of retaliation to this violence. The Christian community positioned itself as a reconciling force. A buffer. A loving example and an example of love. And spoke out words of love and forgiveness.
In February 2015, 21 men, Coptic Christians in Libya, were captured by ISIS, paraded on a beach and slaughtered. The Caliphate released a video of the beheadings to intimidate and scare us. I haven’t watched the video: I haven’t the courage. But I’m told that it shows these men kneeling down on the shore before those who stand with knives at the ready, heads covered. 21 men dignified, honourable, faithful, courageous, powerful, proclaiming their faith to literally their last breath. No show of anxiety or anger. They kept looking over at each other, comforting and strengthening each other. And it is clear that Christ was there with them. A 22nd man, who calmed and encouraged them as they faithfully and bravely called on the name of Christ.
And rather than spread fear, anxiety and horror, that video, which showed those 21 very ordinary fishermen, in their final act of witness, touched millions of people.
When their families were approached, they gave messages of forgiveness and love. The Coptic churches are full. They continue to meet and pray and praise. Every time there are atrocities in Egypt, bombings of churches, killings of priests and worshippers, they are followed by a public outpouring of forgiveness by the persecuted. It takes real courage to rejoice and be glad in the face of such persecution.
This is not our experience – thank God. But there are situations closer to home which require courage from us. People are not just persecuted for their faith. If we look around us, we see plenty of people who are reviled and persecuted, some of it through ignorance, some through hatred, some through apathy and indifference to their plight. Some persecution is systemic, through systems which have been formed by political forces over time. Throughout Europe we are seeing the rise of the political hard right, with its tendencies to be xenophobic, racist, anti-semitic, and self-serving. In the USA we are seeing brave women reviled and persecuted for speaking out in public about their experience of sexual assault by powerful men; refusing to be silenced by shame.
What does courage here mean? The courage to stand up and call out what is unjust, unfair, cruel, unloving. To name persecution when we see it taking place. To do this wherever and whenever we see it. We are here for the sake of God’s world; for the sake of God’s creation. It is up to us.
You will have seen David Attenborough talking about the appalling scourge of plastic pollution in our oceans. We know now that the world is perilously close to reaching environmental tipping points from which there is no recovery. When we see the environment being mistreated and degenerated, we must find the courage to speak out and act, even if it leads to us being labelled as ‘a little bit fringe; on our hobby horse; an eco-warrior’.
When we see the systemic abuse of vulnerable people, people who are disabled, have learning difficulties, people who are asylum seekers or refugees, ex-prisoners, those with mental ill-health, those who are struggling to survive and feed their families, we need to have the courage to stand up and call it out. Even if we are labelled as ‘very left wing’; or a bit of a socialist.
And when we see those who are lesbian, gay, bi or transsexual being reviled and persecuted in our society or within our churches, we need to stand up and call it out. Even if it leads to us being accused of misusing the Bible, playing fast and loose with Scripture; leading the faithful astray.
We will often find that we will be reviled and persecuted for standing up and speaking out for our belief that God’s love is in all and over all and through all and for all. There are, of course, often tricky ethical issues to be considered and negotiated. But our faith requires us to be resilient, faithful and courageous. Especially when we are misrepresented, misunderstood, accused of false motives or wrong interpretation.
We are all children of God. There is no binary, us and them, although we often like to look at the world that way. There is only us, all of us, loved children of God, inhabiting this beautiful blue-green planet we have been given.
And we are one body through the cross of Christ and through his resurrection, which is not just for those who would call themselves Christian, whose faith is visible, but for everyone; for the whole creation. In Col it says: ‘By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible – all things were created through him and for him.’
We celebrate that this morning. We celebrate it every time we share bread and wine together – though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread. I have shared bread and wine in grand cathedrals and on a dusty, windswept hillside in a refugee camp in Djibouti with a group of tired and frightened Ethiopian refugees. We are all one, rich or poor, advantaged or disadvantaged, healthy or sick, straight or gay, all one.
Christ is the great unifying force. In the letter to the Colossians it says ‘he is before all things and in him all things hold together’. Christ is the glue. ‘ through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. The power of Love. The power to love those who revile and persecute us. Nothing, nothing can separate us from this Love. It courses through our veins; it is our life-blood. If God is with us, who can stand against us? We can go through hardship, distress, persecution, famine, poverty, danger – but we are more than conquerors. This is where our courage comes from.
What difference would it make if we really all signed up to this and lived it? How could we be a more courageous church? What would be different? How would it shape our lives together and the ways we support one another? How would it affect the way we shape the world around us, through our relationships, friendships, activity, occupation, in every sphere of influence we have?
We are called to be courageous ambassadors of Christ. We represent him. People look through us to what we represent. We stand for him. We stand for Love. That is a wonderful gift, an amazing place to stand. We rejoice and are glad when we manage it, because it aligns us ever more closely with God’s purposes. And it takes us one step closer to that glorious day when we stand before the eternal throne and hear the words Well done, good and faithful servant.