Healing

(Year C St Luke) (Isaiah 35:3–6, Luke 10:1–9)

May the words of my lips and the meditations of
all our hearts be from the all-loving G*d;
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

So tradition has it that Luke the Evangelist was one of
those Seventy (or Seventy-Two) who were Sent Out,
with the instructions we’ve just heard.

Tradition also has it that he was a physician;
hence his patronage of (among others) physicians & surgeons

How interesting then is the final instruction given to them:
‘cure the sick who are there, and say to them,
“The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’

Now, I’m sure that for almost all of us here,
the field of medicine has always done us
much more good than harm.

But I’m afraid that isn’t always the case.

Although, this is somewhat down to one’s worldview,
so let me share with you what informs mine, regarding this.

 

I wonder how many of us here have heard of
the various models of disability.

Now, I am going to over-simplify.

And please know that I am aware
some of us already know this very well;
bear with me in case some of us don’t.

By and large, the most prominent view regarding disability
has been the Medical Model of Disability.

Broadly, this regards the body — or perhaps mind —
of a disabled person as rather like a machine;
that there are faults, flaws or bugs which require fixing.

Therefore, the way to address disability is to work towards
curing, treating, or otherwise mitigating impairments
so that the person fits more easily into society.

In this, the person without impairments
(as if there is such a thing)
is normal and persons with impairments are not.

 

So what is healing?

I’m writing this half-expecting not to be able to deliver it
in person, in some trepidation of the spectre of the
Great Westcott Plague.

I am very glad to be here with you!

We can and do heal ourselves —
as those who are already ‘over’ the lurgy have.

But in order to heal, we have to be kind to ourselves,
we have to create amenable conditions by resting
and giving our bodies time and energy to heal.

This is one sense of healing.

In what other senses do we use the same word,
sometimes uncritically?

Even in our sermons or prayers?

Are there nuances between treatment, cure and healing?

I wonder how closely we as Christians should understand
healing to connect w the holistic wellness of G*d’s shalom?

(I wonder if that does read back into the text…)

Does Christ offer (and indeed give) a straightforward
medical-type cure to those whom he meets,
or does he offer something more nuanced: shalom?

 

I said I’d share with you models of disability:
the best way to explain the Social Model I have found is
to share this proclamation, by the Union of the Physically
Impaired Against Segregation, in these isles in 1975:

“In our view it is society which disables physically impaired
people. Disability is something imposed on top of our
impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and
excluded from full participation in society.”

If we understand disability more broadly of course,
we could also read: people with mental health issues,
or what we call ‘learning difficulties’.

I have so far found that this is the understanding which
underpins stuff like the Disability Conference I attended
and helped with at St-Martin-in-the-Fields on Saturday.

One of my comrades there, the hymnist, composer,
professor, liturgist and theologian June Boyce-Tillman
pointed out something much more profound than
I could have come up with:

Is the risen Christ’s resurrection body healed?

 

That made me grin broadly.

It’s such a simple thing to have never considered.

We here are a Christmas people, and we have the privilege to
study and ponder G*d’s Incarnation.

G*d took on human nature fully, completely and utterly.

But when Christ was resurrected, did he give all of it up?

 

Having taken on our quirks, our vulnerabilities,
even our impairments, he continued to carry the scars of
his mortal death after his immortal resurrection!

What does that mean for the hallowing of our impairments?

 

We all have vulnerabilities.

(I hope you know this.)

G*d created us.

G*d created our abilities and vulnerabilities, either at the
beginnings of our lives or in our subsequent formation.

I won’t be the only one to have noticed the default
utilitarianism of our culture discourages us from
acknowledging, accepting, admitting and celebrating
our vulnerabilities.

I think I’m right in saying that our society,
and if we’re really honest,
the very depths of our own attitudes
into which we’ve been enculturated,
thinks that ‘the eyes of the blind should be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
the lame should leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’

(By the way, generally, referring to groups of people as
‘the blind’ or what-have-you isn’t great.
It can be a bit dehumanizing.)

Why should someone who can’t see very well want to
‘be cured’ (assuming it’s even possible) when they could be
just as included by, for instance, decent printed materials,
where someone’s bothered to do the research
and follow appropriate guidelines?

 

Thanks to my dyspraxia, I’m fantastically bad at
the process of writing essays.

Do I want or need my brain re-wiring so I can do this
as easily as many of you my comrades?

Would I even be me if I were?

No, I want or need to not be put in the situation where I have
no choice but to write a dozen of them a year.

 

How often do we assume we know what best for someone?

Do we assume we know what is illness
and what is just how someone is?

‘cure the sick who are there, and say to them,
“The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’

NOT:
“you have come near the kingdom of God”

What would we have to do,
how would we have to compromise our own preferences,
our own comforts,
if we realised that all that many people need
in order to ‘be healed’
is for us to make adaptations
(preferably before they are needed);
all they might need is for us to make them not only
welcome to come in, but also able to do so.

 

Remember — in our ministries there will be opportunities —
blessings from G*d — to be a part of
enabling people’s healing, but we
cannot heal without understanding.

 

Dan Barnes-Davies, 17 October 2016
Given at Westcott House Chapel, 18 October 2016

Pet service and placement reflections

Environment Sunday (Year C Trinity 2) pet service

(Luke 7:11–17, Julian)

During the Gathering:

Thank you all very much
for bringing yourselves and your pets.

Perhaps some of you, like me,
aren’t able to bring your pets
with you in flesh,
but rather you bring them with you in your hearts.

On the back inside page of your orders of service,
you will see a photograph
of ‘our girls’, whom I’ve brought
with me in my heart
this morning.

I grew up with five Wheaten terriers
all mothers and daughters or sisters to eachother
Tess was our eldest, and these four are
Bronwen, Dilys, Megan and Gwyneth.

Our dogs were always part of the family,
or perhaps we were part of their pack!
I’ve not brought our dogs here in the flesh,
because Essex is far,
and also they’re all dead.

But I’ve brought them in my heart.

You see, our family-love is,
hope many of us know this,
not necessarily limited to humans.

 

G*d created all things.

G*d is our Parent — Mother and Father,
so all creation are our siblings — sisters and brothers.

Yes, the stories of the bible
tell us that there is something a little special about humans
— that in some sense we have the ‘image of G*d’
in some unique way —
and that G*d has made us stewards.

 

I love language. I love to find out about how words work.

So please indulge me.

The word steward in English comes from something like
house warden — someone, a senior servant in old times,
who supervises the care of the house for their master.

It can mean someone who’s a placeholder for that master —
like the Germanic stadtholder or French lieutenant.

This sense chimes, I think, quite well
with the Hebrew word used in the creation stories
of the book of Genesis when G*d places
the earth-person Adam to work and keep the garden

That ‘keep’ is šamār, and it means to keep,
to guard, to watch over, to protect.

We are charged with being G*d’s lieutenants,
caring for G*d’s creation in G*d’s stead.

 

Creation is suffering.

And when she suffers, we suffer.

The other picture inside the back of the booklet
alleges to be of a farm in Syria.

For years now, Syria has been suffering
nothing short of ecological disaster.

In a country where there is a lot of reliance on farming,
there have been years of drought.

Whether this is caused directly by human interference —
water management and so on —
or by human-caused climate change,
humans have changed the environment there,
and humans have suffered for it.

I can’t claim to know exactly
what has caused what,
but there’s a lot of suffering
throughout the world.

I wonder how much of it is closely linked
with our continued abuse of this planet’s resources.

 

Creation is more vulnerable than ever,
and G*d has entrusted her to our care.

What does she need from us?

What can we do to meet creation’s needs?

***

Sermon slot:

So, what’s the most important detail
in this story that we could easily miss?

“He was his mother’s only son,
and she was a widow.”

Now, to know how important this detail is,
we need to know a little about 1st C. Palestinian society.

Women could inherit neither land nor wealth.

So this widow was entirely dependent on her only son.

Then he dies.

She is not only bereaved of her only son,
but now she has no-one to support her.

Her husband’s, then her son’s, property
would be inherited by some more distant relative,
who might not be bothered with helping her,
or might have too many dependents already.

So that widow of Nain is very vulnerable.

Jesus sees the widow, in this vulnerable position,
he sees her need,
and he has compassion for her,
and he does what he can.

 

It has been my pleasure and honour
to be here with you for eight weeks.

Eight weeks with have flown by.

I’ve been privileged to spend time in this building,
in worship with you all,
in the centre,
with but a few of the many groups there.

I’ve been privileged to go out and about with John,
to visit people in their homes,
to go with a family to their father’s burial,
to simply walk this wonderful place and observe.

I am immensely thankful for the privilege I’ve had here:
the time and the space
to see and experience
another world.

 

So here’s what I’ve seen:
here’s what I’ve learned;
and here’s what I’ll take with me in my ministry:

 

Every church community is called to be like Jesus:
in the reading, Jesus sees what the widow needs,
he has compassion, and he does what he can.

 

I hope you can see where this is going.

This community sees what is needed in Old Trafford,
you have compassion, and you do what you can.

 

And the thing is, in the story,
Jesus isn’t interfering.

He’s not the social services, he’s not some kind of
outsider deciding what ‘they’ need.

He is part of that community,
and he is helping as a brother.

 

When I look at all that happens here and next door,
these aren’t things that some authority or other
has decided must happen
for the good of those folk in Old Trafford.

The things that happen here
are the things that the community sees the need for.

You see the need,
you have compassion,
you do what you can.

 

There is a need for English language classes.
You made them happen.

Our friend Tariq saw the need for newcomers to Manchester
to get to know their new home.
He’s making that happen with his walking tours.

 

St John’s Sunshine grants are another great example —
they recognise where people are coming forward
to do what they can to help.

 

But at the same time some of that money has come
from our solar panels,
which are themselves one small part
of how we can react to creation’s needs:
by reducing the carbon energy consumption
of the church and centre,
we are seeing creation’s need,
we are having compassion,
and we are doing what we can.

Perhaps we can do more on that?

 

So.
As a community, as households, as individuals,
where else can you see that creation is suffering?

What other needs can you see?

Have compassion,
then do what you can.

Dan Barnes-Davies, 3 June 2016
Given at St John’s Church, Old Trafford, Environment Sunday 5 June 2016

Prophets

We need to do things differently.

The second candle on our Advent wreath
  reminds us of the Prophets.

But what is a Prophet?

My dictionary offers two definitions:

  1. Someone who speaks by divine inspiration;
  2. Someone who predicts the future.

That second definition is probably the one that we usually
  think of when we hear ‘prophet’ or ‘prophecy’,
and it is part of the sense in which we mean
  ‘Prophet’ in the church.

But the first definition: someone speaking from G*d,
  is more accurate.

It’s also more.

Biblically — that is to say from our Jewish cultural heritage —
a Prophet doesn’t only (and probably not even primarily)
  foretell the future.

No, a Prophet also tells forth (“forthtells”)
  G*d’s message to G*d’s people.

In the Jewish scriptures, the Prophets are (alas)
  mostly men of some standing
(but they mostly, thanks to their prophecies,
  stand a little on the edge of society).

They were constantly, consistently there
telling their people that they were failing to listen to G*d —
that they had been told time and again
  how G*d expected them to be,
and they were always missing the point.

They said to their people, “we need to do things differently.”

 

In the Gospel reading we just heard, John the Baptist
  (the third candle; more about him next week!)
  speaks out in 1st Century Palestine.

(Brief explanation of the Temple sacrifice rituals and Levitical priesthood.)

He talks about a new way of relating with G*d and
  dealing with things they got wrong.

He speaks the words of the Prophet Isaiah, promising that
  all people (not just the chosen people) will know G*d.

He foretold and forthtold the coming of Jesus.

Jesus wasn’t just a Prophet.

Jesus was a different way of doing things.

G*d had sent so many Prophets already.

The Jewish people of his time had started to expect G*d
  would send a strong military leader.

That was how they’d come to see the Messiah.

He would overthrow their oppressors
with violent insurrection.

He would emerge victorious.

He would be a new David:
  a mighty — and independent — King of the Jews.

In a tiny baby, G*d showed a way of doing things differently:

G*d G*dself became human.

G*d came as a baby.

G*d came as a refugee.

G*d came as the son of a teenage mother
  and an itinerant odd-jobs man.

 

We need to do things differently.

 

Who were our prophets this week?

I think I’m right in saying that very many of us were engaged
  with the big public debate this week.

(At college, on facebook, on twitter…)

It certainly seemed that way to me.

I can remember the other recent times we have
  gone to a new war in the Middle East.

This time felt a little different, I think.

Maybe more people have become more open.

Maybe we’re learning from our past actions.

Bombing Syria is doing things the way we always have.

Recent history shows the disastrous effects — the scars —
  of the way we’ve been doing things.

Jesus’ people’s history showed them the disastrous effects
  of the way they’d been doing things.

Their Prophets kept reminding them
  how they could do things differently.

This week, I believe we have seen glimpses of ways
  we could do things differently.

Perhaps we have even heard Prophets.

 

We look at that second candle lit.

I wonder what the Prophets of Israel would
  have said this week.

Would it be the same as the Prophets of These Isles said?

Would it be the same as they always said to their people?

 

“You have forgotten that we all belong to G*d.
You have forgotten that all G*d wants is šālōm
peace, not just the absence of war, but the
  mutual thriving, wholeness, wellbeing and health —
for everyone.”

 

We forget that that is why G*d came among us.

But that’s another story. Wait for it.

Dan Barnes-Davies, 5 December 2015
Given at the Church of the Good Shepherd on 6 December 2015

Bible Sunday 2015

(White diamonds and blue sapphires laid out in the backs of seats before the service)

 

Guard the good treasure entrusted to you. — 2 Tim 1:14

There are so many things which each of really treasure in the bible, things which are really valuable to us; and there’s always exciting new treasures to discover.

 

Today is Bible Sunday. First off, I’d like you to think of something in the bible which comforts or inspires you? I’d like you to write that on your diamond in the next few minutes. We’ll share these at the peace.

 

Just like the bible isn’t just one book, but loads of books in one book, so the bible is not just one treasure, but it is like a treasure chest.

 

(Anecdote about my ‘treasure’ chest — which my and my sister kept our videos in as children)

 

So, let’s have a look in my treasure chest. Who wants to help me?

 

(Green emeralds — bible shared among the community; red rubies — how did you inherit or how were you introduced to the bible?)

 

I’ve lost my bibles among all these other things. Can you help me pick them out?

But which of these are bibles?

 

We can see lots of books here. (Read the names.) Which one is the bible? (Get answers). Perhaps this Greek New Testament, along with the Hebrew Scriptures, has the best claim to be the Real Bible — because they are the original written form — but for many of us that’s just no use. Rather, though none of these are the one and only bible, they all are the bible. They each have something different to bring; they each have a different perspective; and each of us will have one which is most helpful. So if you’re not a lots-of-words sort of person, maybe the comic bible is for you!

 

But tell you what. We’ve also got a few bibles here which aren’t books.
I know…! (Get them out.)

Phone — audio. BluRay — films. Tablet — online videos, texts & audio. Drama GNB — putting on short plays.

All of these are the bible in some sense — they are ways in which anyone can access the story of G*d and humanity, told through lots of little stories. The Bible is written, spoken or drawn word of G*d which connects us with Jesus the Word and through him with G*d.

 

These sapphires are for you to take. We’d like you to write any questions you come up with about the bible and anything in it, then bring them back to us. You don’t have to do it right away; you can bring them back another time if you like. We promise to try to help you find some kind of answer, somehow.

 

Dan Barnes-Davies, 24 October 2015
Given at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury, Bible Sunday 25 October 2015
at 8am in an abridged, less interactive form (lacking the diamonds);
and at 10am All Age in the above form.

What is the Holy Spirit?

(John 15:26–7 & 16:4b–16; Acts 2:1–21)

May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be from the Loving God who is Three-in-One; Parent, Child and Holy Spirit. Amen.

So, here we are at Pentecost, commemorating that day, fifty days after Passover two thousand years ago, when the Holy Spirit made her presence known. There are so many things to explore in these passages, but I’ll hope you’ll forgive me, being a new preacher, for choosing the most basic question: what in the blazes is the Holy Spirit?

I love languages; I love how they can open up whole new worlds of understanding. Just now, I’m getting into Hebrew a bit! This week at college, I started my Hebrew first lessons — Heather’s been teaching us the alphabet, so I can write something for you: ruakh.

[I wrote רוּחַ on a sheet of A3 paper]

In the beginning, the ruakh of G*d swept over the face of the waters, says the first creation story in Genesis; then G*d formed a human from the dust and breathed into her nostrils the ruakh of life, says the second. This is where the origin of the concept of the Holy Spirit in our faith today comes from; the Hebrew origins — the word ruakh. You might have heard the word before. Does anyone — apart from any Hebrew scholars — know what ruakh means?

[Audience interaction]

Did you know, ruakh is a feminine word? What does it say about us that we’ve made her ‘he’? And that we persist in exclusive use of male G*d images?

Here’s another interesting thing; the Greeks translated ruakh as pneuma and in Latin it became spiritus, hence ‘spirit’, but the sense of that word has drifted rather for us. Same goes for ‘ghost’, which is just from the equivalent Saxon word gast. Hence ‘Holy Spirit’ and ‘Holy Ghost’, though the same, have different connotations. They all started off meaning ‘breath’.

So, let’s think about breath. Perhaps you can remember your last cold — that awful persistent feeling of not being able to breathe properly. Or perhaps you can remember simply being out of breath?

I’ve always been asthmatic. Almost all the time, I’m fine: because I’ve always had it, I know my asthma. But there have been a few times when my breathing has been so bad I’ve had to go to hospital; the last time was when I was 18, at my best mate’s house for a party. He had cats, I had a slightly immoderate amount of cider, so, my judgment compromised, I didn’t realise it was getting difficult to breathe as soon as I could’ve. Mum was called and drove me (rightly telling me how ‘bloody stupid’ I was) to hospital, where I was quickly sorted out with a nebuliser.

Breath is so important. Yet like everything that is so important, we take it for granted until something goes wrong. Then when it’s better, we forget about it again. Breath has always been used as a metaphor for our very alive-ness — that’s what we mean by spirit. It’s not just one of those things about which we say ‘uhh, I can’t live without it!’; it’s almost the only thing you literally, physically cannot live without; once you’re not breathing at all, you’re basically dead.

I hope you’re seeing how this relates to the Holy Spirit — whom we call ‘giver of life.’ We so often take her for granted — G*d the Parent gets all the glory as creator, we’re forever talking about Christ, but the Spirit so often just feels like ‘oh, yeah, and the Spirit… I suppose.’

But nevertheless, the Spirit is life. We all have life. We all share the Holy Spirit; we cannot help it. And by we, I mean everything that is alive. We are bonded together in one community of life by and with G*d.

Earlier in John’s gospel (we heard it this morning), Christ promised to send the Paraclete — ‘the Advocate’ in this translation (meaning a comforter, consoler, advocate, encourager, helper, but not parrot) once he had gone back to the Parent; the Spirit (i.e. breath or life) of truth who will ‘testify’ on Christ’s behalf, who will show up all the world’s ideas of “sin” and “justice” and “judgment” for the madness that they are. Christ fulfilled his promise when he appeared to the disciples after he died and breathed the Spirit upon them with what I can only call an awesome warning: ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

Often the Holy Spirit is represented by a dove, which is also closely connected with peace. Peace is good. But the image on the front of our order of service grabs me a bit harder. The Iona community depict the spirit as a wild goose, following the tradition of the first Celtic Christians. For them it was more fitting to understand the spirit as wild and free, un-tame-able, irrepressible, uncontainable, disobedient even! Personally I’ve never met a wild goose; I come from farming country in north Essex, so I’ve met farm geese, and crikey are they fierce! G*d’s Holy Spirit in us is fierce; she is a gale, she’s passion and fire — like the mighty wind, Peter’s passion and the tongues of fire in our Acts reading; she is (as I heard another preacher say this week) the fire in your belly; she makes you care about the people around you and about our world.

You have heard it said (well, some of us might have heard it said) that the Spirit is like the bond of love which holds the Holy Trinity together (more on that next week — Trinity Sunday), but I say to you that she holds all life together in community. She is for us representative of the fact that everything we do affects one-another and all our world. She is a reminder of our awful responsibility to everything which G*d has created. She is representative of the gift of life which G*d has given us all and she encourages us in all things good. We need only listen.

Thanks be to G*d.

Dan Barnes-Davies, 21 & 24 May 2015
Given at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury, Pentecost 24 May 2015

Who is the King?

(Jer 6:9–21 & John 6:1–15)

I love a good coincidence. This week I got an email from my union about a national day of action against benefit sanctions. Earlier this week the media reported Frank Fields MP’s attack on the DWP and Iain Duncan Smith for the ‘sanctions’ culture in the state welfare system. Not only, from September 2012 ‘til September 2014, were more than 668,000 ‘sanctions’ handed down which led to people having no income for four weeks, more than 370,000 for three months and 2,000 for three years, but the DWP did not even have data about what happened to these people. These people who are some of the most vulnerable in our society.

In Jeremiah, the prophet’s image of God is as a very particular kind of king. The Lord is the disappointed law-giver; the angry overlord who punishes the rebellious people for their unfaithfulness, their wrongdoing, their contravention of their Lord’s law. This Lord is set far and above all the people, absolutely and unquestionably knows what is best for them and has laid down strict instructions for them to follow. Would you want to live as this Lord’s subject? Would any of us put up with him? This is the sort of Lord against which Western society has decisively turned in this age of democracy. If we do not believe in earthly Lords, why do we hold to this image of God?

Thank God we have accounts of Jesus’ ministry! Could there be two more different responses to people who are poor than the DWP’s sanctions and the feeding of the 5,000?! Whereas the Lord, Iain Duncan Smith, and the DWP further punish people who are poor for merely living in a system which disadvantages them, Jesus was incarnate among people who were the lowliest in their society. Almost like a bit of a jape, Jesus sets Philip up with an obviously stupid question – how will we few fisherfolk buy food for 5,000 people? It would cost more than six months’ takings! Takings, salaries, money are the things of this deeply broken world, and such things can do nothing to help. Rather, Jesus takes that meagre portion which God has already given – a few fish and a little barley bread – and transforms the humble food of humble workers into an extravagant overabundance, then shares the available resources among the people! Hallelujah!

‘Ah!’, you think, ‘I want a king like that!’. Bad news. There are no kings like that. That is not a king. And even if there was… … I happen to know my stuff when it comes to the British monarchy – I worked at Buckingham Palace once. Occasionally people say – and said to me there – ‘Oh, isn’t that William lovely. I think he should be king next.’ My reply is always this: that’s not how it works; you don’t get to choose!

Now, we surely all love Elizabeth our Queen, but she is not the king. (Bear with me!)

Today we still have a king; we still have a bourgeois who shamelessly exploit the people, who play the angry king, a grotesque parody of the First-Testament God, punishing the disobedient proletariat. So why do we still adhere so fanatically to the images of God as King and Lord? Perhaps it is because those are the images which suit the status quo. We all love the status quo, don’t we?

‘When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.’ The All-Loving Creator who became incarnate among her own creation is not interested in our earthly constructions like ‘king’; no, Jesus came to be kin. The illusion which we are being sold daily is that each of us is our own king – that is the lie of this individualist consumerist capitalist culture; rather the ideal situation is that there IS. NO. KING! For, if Jesus could move beyond the idea of kingship to embrace kin-ship 2,000 years ago, can we not please move on too?

Dan Barnes-Davies, 25 February 2015
Given in preaching group, 26 February 2015

Ash Wednesday 2015

(Isa 58:1–12 & John 8:1–11) [Years A, B & C]

What are you giving up for Lent? Every Ash Wednesday sermon asks this every year – but for good reason! Fasting – which strictly speaking is limiting what you eat and drink – is one of the key traditions for Lent, which is this period, starting today, every year, when we prepare for Easter. Traditionally we fast or ‘give something’ up each Lent to remember Christ’s time in the wilderness before he began his ministry, and to focus our minds towards anticipation of Easter, which is, of course, the ‘big deal’ – our festival of hope, but let’s not skip ahead.

Today, I want us to think about scapegoats. The idea of the scapegoat originates in ancient times – most prominently in Israel. As part of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) rituals in the Temple, one goat – The Lord’s Goat – was given as a blood sacrifice for the sins of all Israel. Then the high priest would confess before God all Israel’s sins, and figuratively send those sins out from Jerusalem embodied in the scape-goat. Today, the word scapegoat means anyone whom we unfairly blame for things going wrong. The masters of scapegoating were the Nazi party in 1930s Germany, who waged a concerted campaign against Jews, gay men, socialists, travellers, people with learning disabilities and many other groups and races. By their campaign of propaganda and misinformation, the Nazis created an atmosphere in Germany where all the blame for everything which was going wrong was heaped on these ‘sub-human’ groups. ‘It wasn’t us; it was them!’ By the way, the front page of the Times says today: “Cameron incensed as bishops stir welfare row”. (Although, to be honest with you, a few weeks ago when I first gave this sermon to my preaching class, the Mail headline was much more helpful: “At last! A crackdown on foreign patients abusing the NHS!”) By identifying groups of people as ‘other’ to you and scapegoating them, you can convince yourself that you are justified in your inaction; that you can’t do anything to make things better because it’s not your fault.

Thankfully, the first reading, from the writings of the Jewish prophet Isaiah, has a very interesting take on the idea of fasting: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?’ Here the author is having a real go at hypocrites: people who fast (in the strict not-eating sense), yet continue to go about their usual wrong-doing or blissful ignorance without striving to turn from sin or pay attention to people who are less fortunate. Rather, says the prophet, it is more pleasing to God that you offer food to people who are hungry, that you give even such basic things as clothes to people who lack them… …or that you bring people who are poor and homeless into your house – can you imagine that!? It’s quite difficult to imagine. At my previous church, I led the team which ran the winter homeless shelter. We were very good at welcoming people who were homeless into our church-building. But I lived next door to the church; the corners of the buildings were connected – it really was very close indeed; but did I ever consider, even for a second, inviting any of them into my home? We have all internalised this ‘othering’ of fellow human beings – it is that bit of you that would rather ignore the Big Issue seller who tries to greet you cheerfully. Wherever that may come from inside you, it is your responsibility to change.

At the beginning of this month, the broadcaster and ‘national treasure’ Stephen Fry gave an interview on the Irish television programme ‘The Meaning of Life.’ In the interview, he dismissed the Creator-God as “utterly evil” for creating a world in which suffering happens. Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge of St Mary Newington, London, wrote in reply that that picture of that Creator-God simply does not match that of God in Christ: Stephen’s monstrous God is an image of God more to do with power than with the God we know through Christ. However, it is comedian, ‘personality’ and activist Russell Brand’s response that I found more interesting. In his interview, Stephen mocks the teaching ‘let one who is without sin cast the first stone’ (from our second reading) as impractical for a basis of a justice system. Russell replies that the proper application for this teaching is to acknowledge in every person that we all share our human natures. He uses the example of when we pass judgment on murderers or paedophiles – it’s not about seeing a person’s particular sins in ourselves but rather about seeing the capacity for evil within ourselves – he says (and I won’t try to do an impression!) “acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest this negativity is also within us and that our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves.”

And what Russell says relates back to scapegoating: for when you see the same human nature in the other as in yourself, you can’t make them ‘other’ or ‘them’ so easily; rather, you regard ‘them’ as ‘us’. The Irish theologian James Alison explains that on the cross Christ not only perfectly enacted the Temple atonement ritual as both sacrifice and scapegoat, but also in doing so exposed the whole sham of the scapegoating system in which we all still take part, because, on the cross, he is the perfectly innocent and blameless victim.

So, this Lent, what fast do you choose? Will you use some of your resources – whether you have a lot or a little – such as time, money, energy or influence, to help your fellow humans? Will you be more alert – especially during the General Election campaign – for examples of scapegoating? Will you stand up and challenge ‘othering’, when someone says ‘it’s the immigrants’ fault…’ or ‘they don’t deserve our help’? Or, as David Cameron declared in the recent documentary Inside the Commons, ‘we’re on the side of hard-working people’? What is the fast that you choose?

Dan Barnes-Davies, 4 & 17 February 2015
Given at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury, Ash Wednesday 18 February 2015