St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 4 (19.06.2016)

Tony Dickinson

The dreadful events in Birstall on Thursday, and in Orlando last week-end, are profoundly disturbing in themselves. What is even more disturbing is the reflection we see in the mirror they hold up to post-modern western culture.

A man charged with multiple offences, ranging from the possession of an offensive weapon to the murder of the forty-two year-old mother of two young children, announces in court that his name is “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. A young man responsible for the death of forty-nine people in a nightclub was legally able to purchase an assault rifle despite having been investigated for possible connections to Islamist terrorists. Indeed, both men are reported to have links to extremist organisations: and both are alleged to have had mental health problems.

But both of them have been able to nurture their hatreds in a culture which encourages us to hate, a culture which uses the dog-whistles of xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia to attract voters, a culture which encourages us to despise all politicians; even decent, compassionate, transparently honourable politicians like Jo Cox, committed to the cause of the poor and the marginalised, whether they live in her own Yorkshire constituency or in the refugee camps which have sprung up along the route from Damascus to Dunkerque as desperate people seek safety for themselves and their children. One of her last interventions in Parliament was on their behalf, as she spoke in support of Lord Dubs’ amendment to the current Immigration Bill.

“We all know” she said “that the vast majority of the terrified, friendless and profoundly vulnerable child refugees scattered across Europe tonight came from Syria. We also know that, as that conflict enters its sixth barbaric year, desperate Syrian families are being forced to make an impossible decision: stay and face starvation, rape, persecution and death, or make a perilous journey to find sanctuary elsewhere.

“Who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing? Children are being killed on their way to school, children as young as seven are being forcefully recruited to the frontline and one in three children have grown up knowing nothing but fear and war. Those children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness, and I know I would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hellhole.”

For such words as those, it seems, she was condemned as a “traitor” whose death would bring “freedom for Britain” – and those “two precious babies” have lost their mother.

Now, it is one of the chief insights of Scripture that what is of God brings together and creates unity. What fragments and divides is not of God. Our word “devil” comes from a Greek word meaning to set at enmity, to cause division. That is what is happening in our first reading today and in our Gospel. The “rebellious people” who are condemned by the prophet are those who say “I am too holy for you”. They say “Keep to yourself, do not come near me.” But their place is among the dead. They “sit inside tombs”. So does the man from Gerasa, possessed by demons, a legion of them – overwhelming force, in other words. His sense of self has been fragmented. He has no shame. He makes his dwelling among the dead. He repeatedly breaks away from the community which has nurtured him and which seeks, however crudely, to protect him from himself. But it can’t. He is “driven by the demons into the wilds”.

And he is different. He is “other”. Jesus is no longer in Jewish Galilee, but across the river in gentile territory (hence the pigs feeding by the lake-side – and the later reaction of the local citizens). Gerasa, modern-day Jerash, was one of the Ten Towns, Greek in culture, pagan in religion. No wonder the man shouts at Jesus “What have you to do with me?” He is not the concern of a Jewish teacher and exorcist. “Leave me alone!” is the demons’ message. “I beg you, do not torment me.”

However, the work of Jesus is to bring healing and wholeness. He takes no account of the man’s origins, but only of his need. He restores the man’s fragmented personality, so that when the local people arrive on the scene they find the man “clothed and in his right mind.”

Jesus brings wholeness and unity. Jesus breaks down every barrier of race and religion, class and status, even gender. Listen to what St Paul writes to the Christian communities of Galatia:

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We cannot, in other words limit our concern to “those who are like us.” With God there is no “either…or”. There is only “both… and.” “All of you are one in Christ Jesus.” All human beings, whether or not they recognise it, are children of God. All human beings, irrespective of race and religion, class and status, and gender, are heirs of God’s promise. Each one is the brother or sister for whom Christ died. There is no “breaking point.” There cannot be. We cannot say, with the rebellious people who were the targets of Isaiah’s prophecy, “I am too holy for you”. We cannot say “Keep to yourself, do not come near me.”

At the end of last month thirty or so faith leaders wrote an open letter setting out their reflections on the current debates in the light of their faith. They included former archbishop Rowan Williams and our own former bishop Richard Harries. Their letter began with these words: “Faith is about integration and building bridges, not about isolation and erecting barriers.” That is an inescapable truth, especially for those who regard themselves as Abraham’s offspring and who worship the God who reaches out to human beings in compassion, mercy and love.

And now to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…