Sunday 31 July 2016
Colossians 3:1-11 & Luke 12: 13-21
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have a confession to make this morning. When I heard the news about Father Jacques Hamal, the 84 year old Catholic priest who was murdered while celebrating mass in his church last Tuesday, I cried a little.
But that is not really the confession. The confession is that whilst I cried for Fr Jacques I realised that I hadn’t cried for anyone else who had been murdered by ISIS terrorists just this month.
Not the 20 killed in a restaurant in Dhaka, not the 281 killed in Baghdad, not the 6 killed in Saudi Arabia, not the 84 men, women and children mowed down by a truck in Nice on Bastille Day, not the 80 killed in Kabul or the 50 killed in Northern Syria. And although they weren’t related to ISIS I also didn’t cry for the 10 people killed in a shopping centre in Munich or the 19 disabled Japanese people murdered in their care home, or the hundreds killed in Turkey during the aborted coup. Thank God, two other attempted attacks in Germany failed to kill more than the attackers. This, as I said, is just the events of July.
Of course I was shocked and horrified by all of these events, and especially some of the images and stories that came out of Nice, but I didn’t cry. Perhaps there has just been so much of this stuff on the news recently that I had become hardened to it, or perhaps there was something about the numbers of people involved that made it hard to relate to, I don’t know.
Maybe we grow an emotional carapace in order to survive the events we see unfolding in the news almost every day but I wonder whether that takes away some of our humanity, or even some of our Christlikeness, and what we actually need to do is to ask God to take away our hearts of stone and give us once again hearts of flesh so that we never forget the humanity and the uniqueness of each and every person unjustly killed. Whilst, on one level, that would make us more vulnerable perhaps it would also encourage us to pray more deeply for the state of the world.
Anyway, despite the horrors of the month of July I hadn’t cried. But when the story unfolded about an elderly priest celebrating a small mid-week mass in the church which he had served for many years being slaughtered like a lamb before his altar that really got through to me and I cried for him. And then I repented of the hardness of my heart for all the others.
I have no doubt that I cried for Fr Jacques because I was able to empathise with the events of that day. As a fellow priest who regularly celebrates small mid-week communions here it was all too easy to picture the scene, to put myself in his shoes, to relate to the story of that day. It made more real to me the tragedy that is unfolding around us.
Of course Fr Jacques is not the first priest to be killed whilst celebrating at the altar. We should be put in mind both of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was shot in church by a death squad after speaking out on behalf of the poor and dispossessed of El Salvador and, closer to home, if not closer in time, we may also think of Thomas a Beckett, struck down in Canterbury Cathedral by young men with swords believing that they were obeying the instructions of a higher power. And, naturally, we should also be reminded that we follow a great High Priest who was put to death by soldiers who thought they were following a higher power, shortly after he gave us the Last Supper. There is no doubt that Fr Jacques has followed in the footsteps not only of the saints but of Our Lord himself.
I obviously wasn’t the only one who was woken up by the death of Fr Jacques. During the course of this week there have been emails from the Metropolitan police and from the Diocese saying that all churches should be alert but not alarmed and encouraging churches to get CCTV cameras and alarms fitted. The naughty part of my brain was amused by the juxtaposition of telling us with one breath not to be alarmed and with the other that we ought to have alarms fitted.
Sadly, whilst those things may make us feel a little better they are ultimately useless against what happened to Fr Jacques – short of frisking everyone at the door and then locking ourselves in to celebrate we have to accept that there is risk and vulnerability in worshipping Christ with open doors and open hearts. This is not something that can be managed away by a health and safety risk assessment. To be a public Christian is to make oneself vulnerable and there is no hiding behind a carapace either of false security or of hardness of heart.
In the gospel story today Jesus told the parable about false security – of the rich fool who found his security in the abundance of his possessions and when he found himself suddenly blessed with a good harvest he decided to make merry, only to find it all taken away from him overnight. We are reminded not to put our trust in earthly security but to be rich towards God, because he is our only true security.
And in Colossians St Paul reminds us that as Christians our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. What does that mean, to be hidden with Christ? To me it means that as we enter the Christian life Jesus gives us the mantle of his likeness, he imparts to us his perfection, he makes us able to approach God the Father not because of our own goodness, but because of his goodness. We hide inside the goodness of Jesus in order to draw closer to God. But that doesn’t mean that we can stay exactly as we are – Paul tells us that we must put to death the sins of our earthly nature since we have put on a new self which is in the image of the Creator, and that when Christ appears we will appear with him in glory.
As Christians, on a spiritual level, we are called not to have a spirit of fear but to live our lives joyfully as those who are now clothed in the likeness of God.
And, perhaps on a less spiritual level, let me say this: If we allow the terrorists to make us live in terror then they have already won the war. Yes, the events of this month have been terrible and, yes, we should weep and pray for all those who have died and for the state of the whole world but we should not be cowed by terror. My grandparents lived in the East End of London during the Blitz and they had bombs falling around them every night. They never knew whether they would make it through the night or which streets would have been destroyed the next morning. Although it may be a bit of a cliché the Blitz spirit got them through that much more terrible time.
So, in the memory of my grandparents who resisted the terror of Fascism with the Blitz spirit, and in the memory of Fr Jacques who died doing what priests do as we follow in the footsteps of our great High Priest, and in the knowledge that all earthly security is false security I shall not allow the evil of ISIS to make me live in fear or to change the life, worship and witness of this church. The darkness shall not overcome the light and the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church.
Let us pray for Fr Jacques:
by whose grace and power your holy martyr Fr Jacques Hamal
triumphed over suffering and was faithful unto death:
strengthen us with your grace,
that we may endure reproach and persecution
and faithfully bear witness to the name
of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.