Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 9 October 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Reading: John 15. 12-end
“If the world hates you, be aware, that it hated me before you.”…. Remember the words that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you”. John 15. 18 & 20
St. John’s Gospel transports us, not just in imagination, but in the Spirit, to the upper room with Jesus and his disciples on the night before he died. The words he speaks to them then, he speaks to us now.
Scholars of the Fourth Gospel tell us that it is the product of a community which was itself facing persecution: probably because of the fracturing of its relationship with the Jewish community of which it had seen itself as a part. This lead to expulsion of Christian groups from synagogues. At this time, Jews still far outnumbered Christians.
So those words from tonight’s reading which I have taken for my text would have a particularly sharp relevance to them. They had for me too in the past week while I was in the Lebanon visiting projects for persecuted Christians and other refugees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq supported by our Bishop’s Lent Appeal. As many of you will know this arose from a resolution at our own PCC and the St. Marylebone Deanery Synod.
The Diocese of London, thinking that there was yet more I could do, after the Lent Appeal and my pilgrimage to Santiago, decided to send me to the Lebanon; little thinking that sending someone called Moses to the Middle East in these troubled times might not be the brightest of ideas!
However, after some interrogation about where my parents and grandparents came from and how many passports I might have, Lebanese immigration decided that I was probably not an agent of the Israeli secret service Mossad, and let me in. I decided that it would be politic to introduce myself as Abouna, that is Father, Alan, rather than Abouna Musa – Father Moses, and to wear clerical dress when outside the seminary we were staying in. It seemed to do the trick.
Just as John’s was the product of long contemplation, so my experiences in the Lebanon will take much more than a few days’ reflection to bear fruit.
Christians under the Roman Empire did not live under constant persecution, but as members of a religion which had no official recognition, they knew that the threat was always there. Persecution could be officially-sponsored, either at local level or across the empire. Imperial or local government, could increase the pressure on churches when it suited their political purposes. A despised minority made a convenient scapegoat to distract a discontented populace’s attention from governmental failings. There could be outbreaks of communal violence which the authorities would allow to go unchecked; as the police in India often stand idle during outbreaks of anti-Christian or anti-Muslim violence by Hindu extremists.
While I was in Lebanon, I met with pastors, priests and lay workers, visited schools, one in the basement car park of a church, another in a collection of converted shipping containers; aid distribution warehouses where food parcels, winter clothing and heating equipment were distributed – either on the spot or, as I saw one day in the refugee camps themselves. All of these projects, run by Christians (including some refugees), were conspicuous by their willingness to care for everyone in need, Muslim as well as Christian.
In Lebanon, Christian refugees do not live in refugee camps, in part because they do not feel safe there, but dispersed in rented accommodation. The Muslims who live in the camps have to pay rent to landowners for the ground on which their tents are pitched. The Lebanese government, faced with an influx of over 1.5 million refugees – when the population of the country is only 4 million, and already living with a Palestinian refugee population which has been there since 1948, – is understandably nervous of further heightening tensions in a volatile country by encouraging another permanent refugee population. So, officially, there are no refugee camps, just collections of tents made from plastic sheeting provided by the UN High Commission for Refugees set up on bits of farmland.
We visited one of these in the Bekkah Valley, and I was welcomed into their tent home by a Muslim family. They were farming people who had fled from Raqa when it was overrun by ISIS. Even Muslims did not feel safe there. Grandparents, parents and children had all fled. They talked wistfully of the land and livelihood they had left behind and yearned only to go home. As we and our interpreter, a young Christian volunteer, prepared to leave and return to our much more comfortable quarters, they asked me to bless them and their temporary home.
Just as the political and religious situation of the Roman Empire was complex, the same is true of the situation now. Before the 2nd Gulf War, Archbishop Rowan and others warned of the danger it posed to the historic Christian communities of the Middle East – and his warnings have proved to be right. They have come under massive and often violent pressure and huge numbers have emigrated from Iraq, as they are now doing from Syria – having given up hope of ever having a secure life in their ancient home. Daesh or the so-called Islamic State or Caliphate only being the latest of a line of Islamist movements which has targeted them for conversion, enslavement or death.
We heard from a Greek Catholic priest and a Protestant laywoman, both Syrian, about the work they were involved in to aid both Christians and Muslims driven from their homes by the violence. To the surprise of some of my companions, although not to me, they spoke of their support for the Syrian regime. The reality is that Christians in the Middle East have felt and been safer under authoritarian regimes than under supposedly “democratic” ones.
As a young Syrian pastor said to us later that day, identity in the Middle East is religious, so when it comes to elections, people do not vote for the party whose policies or leaders they consider the best, but for the one which represents their religious or ethnic grouping. What looks like democracy may simply produce a tyranny of the majority. In a region where Christians are always a minority, this is not likely to end well for them.
Each week here, we pray for persecuted Christians. Each day here, we pray for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani woman sentenced to death under her country’s draconian blasphemy: a law often abused to pursue personal or local vendettas. Her appeals have been denied by successive layers of courts and this may be her last chance. Even if she is released, there is no possibility of her being able to return to her home. A state governor who backed her case was assassinated by his own bodyguard, so we might wonder how many of her judges will be willing to risk their lives by giving her justice. Pakistani national identity is so tied to Islam, that many violently reject any deviation from their interpretation of it, even by their fellow-Muslims; so Christians are especially vulnerable.
I am not a fan of what is known sometimes as “mission tourism,” flying briefly into a situation and then out of it again; not really staying long enough to gain more than a superficial impression, but leaving thinking that something useful had been done. I felt rather the same about “persecution voyeurism.”
However, I was assured that people in these situations do value contact with us in the western churches. Indeed, many of them fear that the Church in the West has abandoned them. Often they overestimate the influence we have on our governments, which they assume act from Christian motives.
Reflecting on our passage as I tried to listen and look, it occurred to me that the friendship to which Jesus has called us, includes a responsibility for our brothers and sisters who are in these dreadful situations. We are called to find ways of loving them as he has loved us: providing means of relief; making their plight known, not forgetting them or letting them be forgotten; lobbying on their behalf; and, if nothing else, praying for them.