I am sure that tears have been near to the surface for many of us in the past nine or ten days. Sometimes we are so inured to terrible news that we watch or read it without flinching, but a small item will bring a flood of emotion. The moment that really stung my eyes this week, I have to confess, was the singing of the Marseillaise at the England-France friendly match.
I think it is commonly agreed that the French have the most stirring national anthem in the world. Despite the bloodthirsty nature of its words, which I wouldn’t want to defend line by line, there is something about the sheer defiance of tyranny, even at the cost of one’s life, that brings a lump to the throat every time, whether it’s the patrons of Rick’s Bar in the classic film Casablanca drowning out the Nazi song or the sound of tens of thousands of England fans gamely trying to sing the French words in Wembley. In the face of incredible odds, in the face of hatred and violence, freedom and unity must and will prevail – that’s the essential message of the Marseillaise.
Timothy and I attended a Camden Faith Leaders Forum a few days ago and it was moving to stand for a minute’s silence with a roomful of Quakers, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Greek and Russian Orthodox and a variety of other Christians, drawn together by a shared determination to represent the world as our faiths say it should be and not the world of the ISIS nightmare. As I looked around the gathering of 25 or so, a quick head count made me realize that a clear majority had their roots in another country, either recently or a generation or two back. Camden, London, the UK as a whole, have been places of welcome and hospitality, places where we can celebrate the shared values of humanity, places that defy the attempt of bigots and terrorists to make us afraid.
Today is the feast of Christ the King. Our readings proclaim defiance in the face of the evil of this broken world. “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed”, says Daniel. John’s revelation confidently proclaims, “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him … So it is to be. Amen.”
A friend of mine said to me the day after the terrorist acts in Paris, the hardest virtue, out of faith, hope and love, is hope. I have to agree with him. We can cling to our faith in times of darkness, we can continue to act with love, but the temptation to give up on hope is strong when wickedness seems triumphant. That is why we need to return to these scriptures and hear the clarion call of promised victory. We need to live into the future, as citizens now of the kingdom of God.
But it is something we cannot do alone. To live in hope requires us to be in community. We need shoulders to put our arms around, hands to hold, ears to hear us, eyes to see us, faces to reflect back to us the image of God. That is why we need what Jonathan Sacks calls the particularity of our families, our religious communities, our local and national cultures. There has been a lot of anxiety in social media over the past week about whether we care enough about Beirut or Nigeria compared to Paris. The simple truth is that we feel what we feel. We can take action on a universal basis, but our emotions are bound to be shaped by what we know and love.
We know and love the people we meet, the people we touch and eat with and relax and pray with. Of course we care especially for our own partners and children, and for the members of this congregation, and for Londoners, and for Europeans. We would not be human if these genuine relationships made no difference to us.
By living fully in these real, incarnational communities, we learn to love. And we can then act on that love more widely. We can share the values of freedom and unity with others who are different. We can take action to support refugees in the Middle East or kidnap victims in Africa. Our hearts will grow to encompass them. And we can begin to live hopefully, trusting in the ultimate victory of God.
Normally, I try to do a roundup of the year on the feast of Christ the King, as one liturgical year ends and another is about to begin on Advent Sunday. This year we have more pressing issues to think about. But I want to say just a few words about how our life together has helped to nurture hope in me this past year.
Our youthwork project has continued to deliver results out of all proportion to our size and budget. You hear regularly about this in our presentations every couple of months. I want to pay tribute to Roger Carter’s work as Chair of the youthwork committee on this Sunday, his last official one as he is moving to Kent, though he promises to be back often.
The cold weather shelter is running so smoothly in its sixth season that we may take it for granted, but it does so thanks to Celyn and a host of volunteers from within and beyond the church. And I say with great pride that the guests regularly tell me that St Mary’s is the best shelter in the week! Taking part in this work has brought our commmunity together to help those in need. And after church today our Jewish neighbours will be bringing contributions to this year’s shelter – a wonderful sign of hope.
We recently had a facilitated discussion about worship, and many of you joined in the feedback session. For those who didn’t take part, the take-home message seemed to be that we love our liturgy and our music and we are glad to be a welcoming and inclusive congregation. There are things we could improve – overlong notices, help with preparing intercessions, more explanation and involvement about congregational singing – but on the whole the experience of worshipping at St Mary’s is positive.
Perhaps some of the good energy that we notice on a Sunday morning comes from the in the involvement of so many in the Bible Challenges of the past two years. I am very encouraged by the number of people who have signed up for the various challenges that will begin next Sunday – the whole Bible, the lectionary readings, and the all-age weekly Bible story with memory verses to be learned. I like to say that we read the Bible seriously but not literally at St Mary’s. As Christians it is vital to engage with the scriptures, but first we have to know what is actually in them. So I do encourage you to sign up today, if you haven’t already done so, and next week we will be giving out the Bible passports for the weekly challenge and the readings for all of the challenges.
Our Sceptics discussions have really taken off in the past year, and our first Grave Talk seemed to meet a need. There was certainly plenty to talk about. We’ll continue to have Sceptics meetings and we’ll hold another Grave Talk in Lent. It seems we really do want to talk with each other about things that matter. I am delighted that Dan Leader and Miriam Rinsler have started a fortnightly home group and I hope it will grow. Someone said after the Grave Talk that they had got to know the other people at their table better in the hour of conversation than in years of sitting near them in church. Home groups give us the opportunity to have deeper and more supportive relationships with fellow Christians.
In all these ways live in hope, as citizens together of the kingdom here and now, proclaiming the victory of Christ in the face of violence and hatred and exclusion. Many of you will have seen the news clip that went viral this week, of a French father reassuring his very young son after the terrorist attacks. Young Brandon says, “They have guns, they can shoot us because they are really mean, daddy.” And his father responds, “It’s ok, they might have guns but we have flowers.” “But flowers don’t do anything … ” says the child. “Of course they do,” says his father. “Look, everyone is putting flowers. It’s to fight against guns.”
On the feast of Christ the King, though the Marseillaise might stir our hearts to face down our fears, it is the wisdom of that father that is the real take-home message. Flowers and hope will ultimately defeat guns and hatred. That is the truth that Jesus was born to testify to. We belong to his kingdom and we live in that hope.