Justice or charity?- a sermon for the Kirking of the Council, 13 September 2015

Scripture Readings: Amos 7.7-17
Luke 10.25-37
Sermon

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In 2012, there was massive media coverage when the Costa Concordia, a luxury cruise ship, ran aground off Italy, leading to the tragic deaths of 32 passengers and crew. But almost unnoticed, the Italian coastguard were also busy elsewhere:

That same day, the first of three boats carrying African refugees across the Mediterranean from Libya towards Malta and Italy was rescued by coastguards, in an incident which attracted no news coverage whatsoever. 72 were saved, including a pregnant woman and 29 children. The second boat was rescued two days later by a Maltese armed patrol vessel, assisted by the US Navy. The 68 who were saved included a mother who had just given birth… The third boat didn’t make it. A distress call warning of engine failure was intercepted by the Maltese maritime authorities the morning after the Concordia disaster. Then no more was heard….until the last week of January, when the first 15 bodies were washed up on Libyan beaches –at least 55 were lost.

I’m quoting there from a leaflet produced by the Church of Scotland Guild on the situation in Malta. More than three years ago, they began to support a project at St Andrew’s Church, a joint Church of Scotland and Methodist congregation. Named ‘Out of Africa, Into Malta’, their church website explains what they do:

We offer practical help- English language classes at our church twice… coolboxes and fans to relieve stifling summer conditions in the cabins of the refugee centres (many are old shipping containers); quilts, blankets, and children’s clothing in the cold and damp of Malta’s winter months… But the longer-term need is to help these families re-establish their lives. MALTA MICROFINANCE– is our micro-loan scheme, working with Malta’s banking, finance and social service sectors to help stabilise family and community groups. And we are working with the International Association for Refugees (IAFR) to develop, in partnership, a new centre for refugee work in our church crypt.

The need was there, and the folks in Malta saw it in front of them – even if few in the rest of Europe were really paying attention. By 2012, hundreds were dying every year in the waters close to where the Costa Concordia had foundered. These were the refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, attempting to escape from some of the poorest countries in the world, or from war zones such as Syria or Iraq. According to the Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe,

3, 400 people are known to have lost their lives in 2014 in the Mediterranean Sea due to shipwrecks and other tragic incidents but the figure may be higher as not all shipwrecks and tragedies may have been detected’ . (details here)

Some 2,600 have probably died this year in the Mediterranean- hundreds more on land journeys. (details here)

The scale of the refugee problem in Europe is just a fraction of what is happening in the Middle East itself. Take Syria- the United Nations reports that 4.1 million people have fled Syria, and some 7.6 million have been ‘internally displaced’- that is, they have had to flee their homes to some other part of Syria. That’s 12.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance . On any terms, this is a colossal disaster. And all of it caused, not by natural disaster, but by human actions- war, terrorism, violence.

In the last few weeks, the enormity of the refugee crisis facing us seems finally to have hit the consciousness of Europeans. Apart from the response of governments, international agencies, charities and others, it’s been interesting to watch the response of individuals and initiatives which have sprung up very quickly. In Germany, refugees have been greeted with applause and cheers. In this country, there have been collections of goods for the refugees. There was a hastily-organised gathering in Inverness High St yesterday to remember the victims of Syria’s terrible war. It’s as if individuals feel they have a part to play in the crisis. We are not content to leave it up to governments and politicians alone. Many people are asking themselves, ‘What can I do?’

‘What can I do?’ is an old question, and we find it at the start of our Gospel reading today. A teacher of the law- that is, a religious teacher- asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Which is his way of asking what he needs to do to live a moral life- for the Jewish tradition had always maintained that you could not be truly religious without being a good person. Jesus directs him to the law, the Hebrew Bible, to see what is written there, and the teacher of the law naturally lifts out two commandments- to love God and to love your neighbour. An orthodox answer, an answer you’d expect from someone well-versed in the Jewish scriptures, for these two commandments bring together that requirement to love your fellow human beings even as you love God.

We see that link between true religion and true morality in our first reading, from the book of the prophet Amos Some eight centuries before Christ, the nation of Israel is enjoying a long period of peace and prosperity. But not everyone is benefitting- a vast gulf has opened up between rich urban elites and the relatively poor farmers who create the wealth in this predominantly agricultural society. Wealthy landowners were using financial tricks and a corrupt legal system to expand their wealth and power bankrupting small farmers.

And so a farmer named Amos, convinced that he is a prophet called by God, goes to Bethel, one of the most revered sites in Israel, and prophesies against all this injustice. He offends the pious, proclaiming that God ‘despises your festivals’ because their religion is not linked to social justice. Eventually the king’s priest, Amaziah, writes to the king to complain, and in a classic moment in the Old Testament, Amaziah confronts the prophet, telling him to go back to his own country and never to prophesy at the king’s sanctuary. But Amos claims he has, indeed, been called from his herds and his fig trees to pronounce doom on the rich and powerful. In fact, Israel was, indeed, to encounter military disaster just a few decades later.

Sometimes God raises up individuals from unexpected places to as prophets, remind us that our society is going wrong. Amos was no professional prophet, yet God called him to speak at the royal shrine- to speak words which were uncomfortable, which would prick the conscience of the rich and powerful worshipping there. But often it is not an individual who seems to speak hard words to us. The bodies in the Mediterranean, the tide of human suffering and need we see coming from the wars of the Middle East and the poverty of Africa- all these, it seems to me, are signs that all is not right with our world, prophetic signs that we need to change.

The teacher of the law had a question for Jesus: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus reminded him that in their religious tradition, it was as Amos and the prophets of the past had said- to be truly good you had not only to love God, but to also love your neighbour. Piety and humanity must always go hand in hand. But then the teacher of the Law asks another question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ And that, too, is an old, old question.

Jesus answers this time with a story- of man who is beaten and robbed, and is left bleeding by the roadside. Twice, people walk on by on the other side. Only the third passer-by stops to help- giving first aid, taking him to a place where he will be looked after, spending his own time and money so that the man who has been robbed will be looked after. For many people, this famous story is a reminder of our moral obligations. Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament that we should no longer ‘walk on by on the other side’ in the face of the needs of refugees. Knowingly or unknowingly, she was quoting Jesus when she said that.

So according to this story, our neighbour is someone we help when we see they are in need. You find someone bleeding on a road, and the correct response is not to walk on by, but to help. Our reading ends with another dialogue between Jesus and the teacher of the Law:

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Acting like a neighbour means showing mercy to those you meet and whom you can help.

However, if that was all there was to it this, I wonder whether this story would have been remembered. It would be Jesus simply reiterating what was common wisdom about how to be good. But there’s another element, which perhaps we often miss because we don’t remember the historical context. An element which would make it memorable to those who first heard the story, because it was so unexpected.

The first two people who meet the robbed man are a priest and a Levite- two representatives of the religious leadership of Israel. Jesus was constantly in controversy with the religious leadership of his day. In fact, for clergy like me, reading the Gospels is often an uncomfortable experience, as Jesus constantly accuses religious leaders of hypocrisy. And it seems he’s at it again in this story. The religious leaders and teachers fail to live up to the first principles of their practical religion- seeing a neighbour in need, they walk on by on the other side.

But mention of a priest and a Levite also serves to sharpen the shock which those who first heard the story must have felt when Jesus introduces the third person to come down that road. ‘But a Samaritan while travelling came near him’. Today we speak of a Good Samaritan as someone who stops to help- the person who stops what they are doing to help someone in need, such as a motorist who stops at a breakdown, or a passer-by who stops to help an elderly person who has had a fall. Again, it’s a phrase we’ve borrowed from this parable of Jesus. But do you know what a Samaritan was back in Jesus’ day?

Jesus says to his largely Jewish audience, ‘But a Samaritan while travelling came near him’ and at this point I can imagine his audience taking a sharp intake of breath. For Jews and Samaritans, although they lived in the same region, were enemies. Although they held some beliefs in common, Jews and Samaritans were distinct religious and ethnic groups by Jesus’ day. There was little love lost between them. As Jesus’ original audience pictured a Samaritan approaching the injured Jew on the road, they must have feared what was going to happen next. But Jesus does something unexpected in the story at this point: ‘But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity’. It is the Samaritan, the foreigner, who helps the wounded man. A Samaritan, an adherent of another faith, is the one whom Jesus choose to illustrate to a teacher of the Law how he should put into practice the principles of his own Jewish faith.

As we face up to the crises cause and war and poverty around the globe, there will be those who will say, ‘charity begins at home’. They have forgotten the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan- that often the person who is your neighbour is someone who is quite unlike you.

What I like about this Kirking service is that by marking the work done by our councillors, we also mark the fact that we live in community together. Individual acts of kindness are vital, but we also need to organise to get things done. The voluntary sector does great work, but it needs to be nourished and encouraged by national and local government. What happens in places we once thought far away affects us in our daily life- that is the reality of globalization. Our neighbour could be anyone- and the people who teach us about how to be neighbours might be foreigners or those of another creed.

It is hard to be a policy maker in today’s complex, interconnected world. Today we pray for the Inverness members of the Highland Council, for we are conscious that you share, with all those who represent us, heavy responsibilities. We pray you and others in positions of responsibility in our community and nation, that you will do your work with wisdom, and with a special care for all who are in particular need. We recognise that you need to make complex and difficult decisions. Is it possible to be a politician and to show mercy? I hope so.

Prayer is important for Christians. We pray all the time for those in need. Many of us see the refugees arriving in Europe as a crisis, but in a striking statement, the Moderator of our General Assembly, the Right Rev Dr Angus Morrison, has called it an answer to prayer:

The women, children and men currently turning up on the shores of Europe in their hundreds of thousands are, for many of us, an answer to prayer. Amongst them are the very people whose safe passage from war-ravaged and persecuted regions many of us have been praying for. People do not choose to cram themselves into boats and lorries, to cut their way through razor wire fences, to live in refugee camps or to try to make it through the Channel Tunnel into the UK unless what they are trying to escape from is utterly terrifying. We have an absolute obligation to help.

It can be scary and surprising when our prayers are answered- especially when the answer to our prayers means that we have to learn once more what it to be neighbours to people in need.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimm