The Middle East: passion and compassion

Sermon by The Rt Revd Michael Lewis, Bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Did you hear St Paul’s real anguish in the letter to the Romans? “I’m telling the truth in Christ. It’s no lie. I swear by my conscience. There is such great heaviness, such unremitting sorrow, in my heart.” Heaviness and sorrow and anguish at what? For whom? For people, especially his own people, getting religion wrong, missing the point, misrepresenting God.

Iraq visit with Bishop Mouneer 2013When I visit Baghdad I almost always call on a Shi’a Muslim Grand Ayatollah. He’s about my age, 61 or so, but looks at least twenty-five years older, mainly because under Saddam Hussein his body was revoltingly tortured. Now, with the Shi’a in the ascendant at last in Iraq for eleven years, you could imagine he’d be exultant at a redressing of the balance of power. But far from it. He could speak verbatim St Paul’s words in Romans 9. “I tell you the truth. It’s no lie. I swear by my conscience. There’s such heaviness, such unremitting sorrow, in my heart – for my co-religionists who are Sunni Muslims but really for all Muslims, Shi’a too; and for all believers, Muslims and Christians and Jews, who make free with ‘religion’ and ‘God’ but miss the point; who get him wrong; who traduce his nature and his will.”

There are four dioceses in our Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Between us we cover a region where at this moment anguish is acute. Not every country is in turmoil, but we’re certainly full of heaviness and sorrow and anguish for those that are.

In Egypt an inept and partial Muslim-Brotherhood government squandered its chances, and we hold our breath to see how the military strongman who swept it away intends to rule. Frankly it looks ominous. Somalia remains as weak a state as you could imagine, and the vicious Al Shebab terrorise everyone who baulks at their puritan Sunni fundamentalism. Libya, violently freed from the Gaddafis, now seems to be on the verge of being split and enslaved by militias with aims unclear apart from grabbing ports and oil. On Iran, the jury is out. Under a new president is it finally taking steps in from the cold, or, under its more powerful supreme religious leader, is it bluffing? Meanwhile in that country the active harrassment of Christians, Anglicans among them, amounts to state persecution – a big word, and not one that we like to use so readily as some do. Syria, a nation of mostly gentle, cultured people, is going through the most prolonged agony, and now it’s years, not months. A much feared dynasty isn’t giving up easily, and its opponents turn out to be a mixture of the reasonably well intentioned and the positively dangerous and fanatical, and, of those last, many are not Syrians. Most topically, what’s happening in Gaza – a pathetically unequal and unconscionable conflict in which ordinary non-combatants are apparently calculated to be tolerable collateral in the pursuit of war aims – is only part of a wilful humiliation of the Palestinian people and a shocking neglect of hard-headed,  adult, sustained diplomacy.

All these are in our wider province. In my own diocese, the Yemen drifts in and out of the news as the years roll on: a dictator gone, but not really gone; and three separate insurgencies for the few good politicians and soldiers to contain, let alone disperse. And lastly and so painfully Iraq, where the stated ambition of the ultra-extremists of ISIS is a restored Sunni Caliphate far harsher, far more frightening, far more blinkered and absolute, and in fact more deeply unIslamic, than anything in Haroun al Rashid and the Thousand and One Nights, never mind the last actual Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire.

In our region at this time Christians aren’t the aggressors. At this time, it’s some of those who profess to follow one of two other great monotheistic world religions who are at the forefront of terrorising and killing. In some places Christians are specially singled out, but mostly they take their place among the poor of the land, Muslims and Christians and Jews, who long and sigh for peace.

But of course at other times, too many times, Christians also have killed and terrorised; been puritans and fanatics and absolutists.

Whenever and wherever the point is missed, whenever and wherever religion is perverted, God is traduced: God’s will, God’s nature. Our hearts should be heavy and sorrowful.

The collect for today most movingly asks God to increase in us true religion and to nourish us with all goodness. Just so.

Faced then with cruelty and injustice that’s mostly allied to, if not explicitly in the name of, bad religion, what can we do? What do Christians do?

Certainly we can go back beyond Romans 9 to Romans 8 and at least find the comfort of solidarity. Here’s St Paul again: “For thy sake we are killed all the day long.” We can echo too what Paul says at the start of his great peroration: “What – who – shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Answer: “Nothing. No one. Therefore the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that shall be revealed.” But perhaps they and we should also watch what Christ does in today’s Gospel at Matthew 14:13. The passage follows straight on from the tragic beheading of St John the Baptist, an atrocity no less cruel for being whimsical. Those who knew John are full of anguish and sorrow, and wonder what their world is becoming, and where hope might be. But Jesus goes into retreat. “When he heard this, he withdrew to a desert place by himself.”

Then, emerging, he sees the presenting needs of many, among whom doubtless are not a few traumatised by the killing of the Baptist. He feels their sickness of mind as well as body, their restlessness of spirit. “And he had compassion on them.” When they need it, he feeds them; not just his committed disciples but all who come into his view. Just how much more eloquent can he be about the true nature and will of God? Just how much clearer can he be about who God is, what God does, and how God wants us to be? Just how much more touching, and revolutionary, can he be about good, not bad, religion?

Tragic passion is answered by infinite compassion in a proto-eucharist of love, mercy, sharing, inclusion, and revelation. May believers in Gaza and Hampshire, in east and west, in bad times and good, always have the grace to join Jesus Christ in such a celebration, such a holy communion.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

This sermon was preached by Bishop Michael at Winchester Cathedral on Trinity 7, Sunday 3 August 2014.

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