Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Sermon from the 13th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 17B)

This is a sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Paul Trathen, at the Parish Mass on Sunday 30 August 2015.  He draws on the lectionary texts set for the day:
DEUTERONOMY 4:1-2, 6-9
JAMES 1:17-27
MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It is just lovely to be back in St Peter’s after a refreshing holiday!  Or, at least, as refreshing as holidays are at my stage of life, with all the demands and workload that accompanies the fun, with a number of dependent children in tow!...
Our journeys have taken us west (to Pembrokeshire) this past week and south (to Brittany, in France), before that.  Both beautiful (though I will be content to give the car a miss for a bit, now, given the amount of driving entailed!)...
I switch off from the news quite a bit whilst on hols, but could not fail to notice that a story growing ever bigger during this has been about the growing desperation (and numbers) of those seeking refuge from harsh places, oppressive regimes and cruel treatments; those prepared to risk what little they have left, to flee the places they hoped to have always called home and to make a perilous journey to, and across, Europe...to find refuge and sanctuary in this and other European lands...
A couple of weeks ago, I drove myself and my children through Calais, straight onto a ferry ship, to bring us to the UK, following our time in Brittany...and my heart broke as – just before we entered the heavily-fenced approach to the ferry slipway – I spied in the wasteground on the northern edge of Calais ‘The Jungle’...
Unless you, too, have been doing holiday-max in avoiding newspapers and television screens and all our other news media, you will by now know to what I refer.
The ‘Jungle’ is the name which has been given by its residents to the refuge-seekers’ camp in Calais.  It is, at present, a very basic kind of home to around four thousand people, 90 percent of them young men and principally from the Horn of Africa, northern Africa and Syria.  A makeshift church in the camp has caught the attention of the media, during these past few weeks.  The church in question is an Ethiopian Orthodox church, frequented by Ethiopians and Eritreans. 
Why this little church should attract such media attention is not altogether clear.  There are numerous such churches all over Africa.  It is only natural that immigrants from Africa should want to have a church while they endure the boredom of life in Calais where they have no work, and no fixed abodes, indeed no fixed anything.  Some might think that the building of a church would be low on the list of their priorities, but actually the opposite is true, which tells you something about the character of our African brethren and human nature in general.
One thing the presence of this church does tell us is that not all the refuge-seekers are Muslim, though anecdotal evidence – such as the names of those interviewed on television, and the dress of many of them – suggests that the majority may well be.
There are of course other churches in Calais, Catholic ones, who have long been involved in helping the migrants seeking refuge in whatever way they can. This has not been widely publicised, though whilst in France I heard a little (on the radio) of the work of the parish priest of Saint Vincent de Paul in Calais, Father Jean-Marie Rauwel. As for Italy, where so many migrants first step ashore in Europe, there they receive much help from Caritas, the official Catholic charity. Needless to say, Catholics and their charities help everyone, not just their fellow Catholics.
These folk migrating and seeking refuge in new home-countries present us with a problem as fellow, Catholic, Christians.  They are human beings who like all human beings should receive our charity. They represent the challenge expressed in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  At the same time they are ‘illegals’ as presently-defined by the laws of this nation and other European nations, and they are also disrupting the legitimate traffic going through the Channel Tunnel and onto the ferries and damaging the fences around these transport points.  While many warn us against “demonising” them, that is all very well, but if someone damages a fence, that is a criminal offence, is it not?  I would not be allowed to get away with it if I were to try and trespass on railway property, would I?  The reply to that is, of course, that there are no circumstances in my life that would drive me to such an action.  That is perfectly true.
Before us is a stark choice.  Either we enforce the law – more fences, more dogs, more arrests, more deportations – or we change the law.  We cannot continue as we do at present, with a set of laws that we only half keep.  So: either bulldoze the Jungle and the little Ethiopian Church (which might evoke very different responses in the breasts of Guardian-readers and Mail-readers), or enable the people living there to migrate, and petition for refuge, legally. It has got to be one or the other.  The Jungle has to go.  Judging by the way things are now, the current situation is not just unclear, it is farcical for the government, and tragic for the migrants.
I rarely take a view from the pulpit about what a present-day government should do, but I note just three things from our scriptures set for today, which might provide points for reflection were I to do so.
In our first piece of scripture, from the book of Deuteronomy, we hear about the moment when Moses gives a parting speech, an exhortation, to the people of God who he has lead out of slavery and cruelty in Egypt, to the very banks of the River Jordan.  God has forbidden him to enter to enter the Promised Land, but has had him commission and command Joshua to lead the people on and into the Land.  He tells the People of God to live within the Law which God has given them, to live in such a way that “this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’”
In our second piece of scripture, from the first chapter of the Letter of St James to the early Christians, Jesus’ brother (and leader of the first church in Jerusalem) counsels his readers that giving and generosity are at the very heart of the character of God.  Our very lives are to be understood as pure gift.  As St James puts it: “In fulfilment of his own purpose, he gave us birth by the word of truth.”  And then he goes on to say how this must affect the way we act, and particularly how we relate to one another:
“You must understand this, my beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
Finally, in our Gospel passage from St Mark’s pen, we hear of an occasion when Jesus is rebuked by some Pharisees, over the fact that Jesus’ disciples have not been observing all of the “traditions of the elders”, which is to say the developed law of statute, provision and restriction around the questions of purification and dining etiquette.  Jesus quotes back to them the rebuke of old prophet Isaiah:
“This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
He chides them with the thought, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition”, going on to ask the crowd around to acknowledge that evil intentions come from “within, from the human heart”, not from the outside, and certainly not from defilement from contact with others.
May we pray earnestly for all our brothers and sisters around the world, for those called into government in various places, and for our own souls... +

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