Sunday, October 21, 2007
I was 9 years old in 1966. Cleveland, the city in which I was living, was at the time the tenth largest city in the United States. During the summer of that year, Cleveland, like many cities in the United States endured five days of race riots.
The riot itself was sparked off by an incident when an African-American man was told to leave a pub because they did not serve blacks. But like many an incident when social tension erupts into violence, there was almost certainly not one single cause.
I’m equally certain in my own mind that the main cause was the gross inequality in living conditions between African-Americans and white Americans at that time.
I’m not claiming that all inequality has gone in my lifetime, but I do want to testify as a witness to what I observed back then. Even as a child, I understood that people with different coloured skins had two different sets of living conditions. If I sometimes wondered why this should be so, adults would tell me that ‘They don’t need as much to live on as we do.’
The 'brotherhood of man'
This morning, Sue has talked to us about the people of Omwabini and the similarities of our lives.
Once you get to know people, we all have the same basic needs and desires. We all need a roof over our heads, we all need food in our stomachs, we all need basic hygiene and we all need healthcare. We all need to earn a living and many of us have the hope and aspiration that our children will be educated so that they can live productive lives.
One of the most important things we can do if we want to live out the great commandment to love our neighbour as ourself is to put ourselves in their shoes and really understand that every single person is like us. In other words, the most important thing we can do is to try to empathise with another person. To understand that just because a person falls into a category that we consider as being ‘other’ that it’s not true that their needs are less than ours.
If we’re reminiscing back to the 1960s, another favourite phrase of the era was the phrase ‘The brotherhood of man’. As corny as the phrase may sound today, and even though it was not a phrase invented by or used by the Christian church, the phrase communicates a central Christian truth: That all people equally precious and beloved in the eyes of God.
There are some Christians who think that the idea of the equality of all people before God is a ‘worldy’ idea and that the primary duty of the Christian church isn’t to try to break down categories of ‘us and them’ but to try build them up in order to maintain the purity of the church. If we believe this, then I think we’ve missed the significance of Jesus’ life, mission and teaching.
God’s universal offer of love
In the ancient world, there were three ideas about how the heavenly realms operated.
The first idea was that there were many gods in heaven and that each tribe or nation had its own god. The gods, just like the people they ruled over, might fight each other. This was basically humans bringing the human idea of ‘us and them’ into the divine realm.
Another option – held in a number of cultures and not just by ancient Israel – was to believe in one Supreme God who loves only my nation. So, for instance, the Masai believe that there is only one God and that He protects the Masai and that he aids them in battle against their enemies.
Many Jewish people invoked this idea of God during Jesus’ time and we even get this idea today – witness George Bush’s suggestion that America is engaged in a war against Islam and that God is on America’s side.
The third option is the belief that there is one God who is the God of all peoples, all tribes and nations. This isn’t a modern picture of God as some people might claim. Along with the two other views, we see it already in the Old Testament. The covenant with Noah and then with Abraham is viewed by both Jews and Christians as being indications of God’s universal offer of his love to all people.
And Jesus models this picture of God’s universal love by deliberately violating all the established codes designed to designate who was an ‘outsider’. He violated the ‘us and them’ codes when he ate with tax-collectors, when he talked with and touched women and when he healed lepers.
Jesus taught that there is no person to whom God will not extend his love. There is no tribe or skin-colour or age that puts us beyond the possibility of being blessed by God. There is no gender or disability that puts us beyond the possibility of being gifted by God. There is no life situation, no past sin that put us beyond the possibility of being forgiven by God.
The Gospel makes here-and-now demands
If we are true disciples of Jesus, it won’t do to proclaim the message of a ‘spiritual’ Gospel and then ignore the consequence of the Gospel message in the here and now. As Christians, we are called to proclaim the good news of God’s offer of forgiveness to all people. We are called to make disciples for Christ.
But, equally importantly, we are also called to show the love of God in a practical way. The practical consequence of believing that God offers his love to all people is that our offers of help are not to be restricted only to those who are Christians or who we expect might become Christians. Nor is our charity to be restricted to people like us.
We are called to offer our prayers, our time and our talents for the good of all people.
As we celebrate One World Week, let’s remember Sue’s talk this morning and reflect on the fact that all people everywhere have the same basic needs and the same God-given humanity.
Let’s remember that there is no category of people who needs less than we do, no category of people who is inferior to anyone else and no category of people who is beyond the love of God. And let’s keep in our prayers all those who suffer because someone believes that their lives are less valuable than other lives.
Let’s pray for the peace of God and for his Kingdom to come quickly. Let’s pray for everlasting life for all people and for life before death for those who do not yet have it.
It seems to me that to be a Christian is to obey the Great Commandment to love God and to love our neighbour as ourself. To be a Christian is to try to do God’s will knowing that we will inevitably slip up, get things wrong and sin. And to be a Christian is to know that God’s Good News is that, when we do sin, that being wrong can be forgiven by the grace of God.
But the preoccupation of the people in today’s reading is ‘How many will be saved? Will it be only a few?’ I wonder what answer it was that they wanted to hear? Did they believe that God’s Kingdom was only for the chosen few? Were they worried that they would not number among the chosen? Were they looking for an assurance of their own citizenship in the Kingdom?
Or did the people asking this question think they knew that they were part of the chosen few? Were they asking the question because they wanted assurance that God was going to exclude their enemies from the Kingdom? My suspicion is the latter. I suspect that the people weren’t as concerned with their own participation in the Kingdom as they were concerned about who was not going to be given admission. After all, no good Jew would want to be part of a Kingdom where there was even the remotest possibility that one of their Roman oppressors might be given admission.
‘How many?’ the people wanted to know. ‘What’s the quantity?’ I wonder if they were expecting to hear an answer of ‘Twelve times something’ representing the tribes of Israel?
But Jesus refused to answer their quantitative question and painted a picture instead.
There is a great house party going on. People from all corners of the world have travelled a great distances to be at this party. And Jesus’ current conversation partners seem to be shouting from outside: ‘Hold on a minute! You’ve invited the wrong people into your house! We’re the ones with the genuine tickets! We’re the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!’
What is it about human nature that causes us to divide the world into us and them? When we get caught up in this game of ‘us and them’ we seem to forget to be grateful that we’ve been given tickets to the party ourselves. And we start to get worried about who we don’t want to see at the party.
In the New Testament, the people who engage this kind of ‘them and us’ thinking are usually the scribes, the Pharisees or the high priests. But we are at risk of totally missing the point if we think that these parables have nothing to do with us.
In Christianity today, we have people who are vitally concerned with identifying who it is that will not be invited into the Kingdom: perhaps it’s the adulterers or the homosexuals. Or perhaps it’s the CEOs of multinational corporations or those who continue to exploit the poor.
The twist in the tail, of course, is that each one of us here this morning has a different ‘us’ and each one of us has a different ‘them’. And I believe that ‘all can be saved’ and that all the different ‘us-es’ and all the different ‘thems’ will be invited into the Kingdom, and it’s not for you or for me to decide who God will exclude.
I think the question for you and me this morning is: ‘Who is my ‘them’? And my suggestion is that when we pray our prayers of intercession this morning, let’s remember these people in our prayers.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
Mark 6: 37 (NIV) But he answered, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "That would take eight months of a man's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?"
Illustration - The Rice Market in Ghana
Last Sunday evening, Channel 4 ran a television show called ‘The Great African Scandal’. It was produced by Channel 4’s religious department and featured the Christian theologian Robert Beckford. Beckford went to Ghana on the occasion of the 50th year of independence in order to understand how international trade policy has affected that country.
It’s important to understand that Ghana has had a democratically-elected government since independence and that it is a stable and free country. It’s also a country rich in natural resources, but it’s significantly poorer than it was ten years ago.
I’m going to tell you just one story from the programme, which is the story of rice. Rice is Ghana’s staple diet and it’s a staple for a reason. Because historically, Ghana’s land and climate was and is suited to the growing of rice.
And historically, the Ghanaian government gave small subsidies to Ghanaian subsistence farmers to support them on their farms to grow rice for their families and a bit extra for a living income.
But in the 1980s, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank demanded that the Ghanaian government stop subsidising its farmers on the grounds of free international trade. And then in the guise of ‘Aid to Ghana’, the American government began shipping subsidised American rice to Ghana, thus making life even harder for Ghanaian subsistence farmers.
We saw pictures of Ghanaian markets flooded with cheap American rice that is more refined and, according to one consumer, ‘more delicious’ than the indigenous product. The end result is that formerly thriving farming villages have been left in poverty and the land has been left fallow.
It’s not that the people are not willing to work - as Beckford found out, the work is extremely hard. It’s not the people are unable to work. It’s not that the land is poor or that the people do not have access to the materials they need to be farmers. It’s that international policy has decimated the domestic and international market for Ghanaian rice.
America and the international trade agencies have destroyed an entire sector of the Ghanaian economy whilst dressing up their destruction as ‘aid to Ghana’.
A Christian Ethic of Sharing
This is all quite a different scenario from verse 37 of this morning’s Gospel reading which suggests that disciples are called to feed others and not to impoverish them.
And so this morning, I want to talk about ‘Why Christians believe that God asks us to share with others’. Because, if we are Christians, the ‘why’ should be important to us.
It’s not just a question of having a vague idea that sharing is good thing or that it would make the world a better place. As Christians, we believe that ‘sharing with others’ is fundamental to who God is, to what we believe, and to the Gospel.
And key to this conviction about sharing is our views about the Kingdom of God and the role of the church in that Kingdom. When we talk about the Kingdom of God, we can only talk in allegorical images about something that we have not yet seen.
The Kingdom of God, the early Christians believed, would be a ‘Kingdom’ where God would reign as king. It would encompass the entire earth and, because God was its sovereign, all people would be treated with justice and fairness and would be fed, clothed and at peace with God and with each other.
In our modern understanding of life, the universe and everything, the idea of a world-wide Kingdom where God is sovereign doesn’t encompass all the ideas and concepts that need to be included in our understanding of the universe, but nonetheless it’s a useful allegory and picture for us.
So, using that picture, as Christians, our hope is that all believers will be resurrected into the Kingdom and that this realm where God’s justice, fairness and dignity reigns will be our home forever.
So what is the role of the church in bringing about this kingdom? I want to suggest to you that the role of the church is not simply to recruit new members to the Kingdom.
Live as if the Kingdom of God were already here
The role of the church is also to live as if we were already people of the Kingdom. To live as if we already inhabited a land where all citizens were regarded with equal worth, a land where true justice reigned and a land where forgiveness rather than revenge was the order of the day.
We are not just to hope to be citizens of the Kingdom in the next life.
We are called to live as if we were already in the Kingdom now. Of course, this is difficult when the world around us does not operate by Kingdom rules but rather often operates by rules of exploitation.
But as Christians, our ethical system is not based on ‘the greatest good for the greatest number of people’. We believe that God loves all people and endows each person with equal dignity through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Our ethical system is therefore based on the principle that we are to treat others with the same dignity and love that God does. Because it’s based on love, the Christian ethical system demands our personal involvement and it demands that we treat everyone as if they were family members: as if they were our brothers and sisters.
In his television programme, Robert Beckford commented that rich Ghanaians were treating poor Ghanaians, the ones who did all the work, as if they were people without feelings, emotions or souls. This is the way that the rich nations of the world treat the poor nations of the world and it’s something that we as Christians cannot condone, let alone bless.
As Christians, we share with other people because we believe they are our brothers and sisters. In our individual lives, we are therefore called to treat all people we encounter as brothers and sisters: as people with dignity, with feelings and with souls.
On a national and international level, we are also called to work against all powers and systems that enable the haves to exploit the have-nots. We can do this by voting, by campaigning for trade justice, by acts of charity which empower people and by supporting Fair Trade.
As we come to communion together in a few minutes, we will come as a local church community to feast with our Lord at his table. As we come to his table, let’s bring with us in our prayers those individuals we know who have yet to know the Lord and those individuals who are struggling in any way.
Let’s also bring in our prayers the families who are being helped by FARM Africa and let’s commit to do what we can for global justice.
I pray that, in our communion, we may all be empowered to live today as if the Kingdom of God is already here. Amen