TESTIFYING TO THE LIGHT IN A SECULAR WORLD
That Pentecost theme continues to run through today's sermon, based upon the set Lectionary reading for the third Sunday in Advent: John 1:6-8 declares, "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light."
I am not asking you to agree, necessarily, with what I say today, but please engage with the issues. Many of you may say that this sermon is too political, but in reply I quote the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "I don't preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, full stop. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn't say, "Now is that political or social?" He said, "I feed you." Because the good news to a hungry person is bread."
But how should we testify to the light in a way that is relevant to the post-modern and increasingly secular world in which we live?
I suggest that to be a witness to testify to the light is not necessarily a big out of the ordinary event. It does not usually need any of us, for example, to pack up and move to some foreign field to be a missionary. All that it takes is for each one of us to be faithful in Kingdom living right where we are day by day. For example, we could all make what may seem to be insignificant changes to the way and from where we buy our goods and services.
If sufficient people made just minor changes, as the saying goes, "from the acorn the mighty oak tree grows ." Or, when he was writing about the influence of art, the English poet John Dryden wrote in 1667, "Mighty things from small beginnings grow."
As one example, although on line retailer Amazon works carefully within the law, I have pledged not to buy again from Amazon until it sorts out its unethical working and taxation policies and practices. But more of that in a while...
In the context of the Christian Testament, obviously the 'light' of God was Jesus of Nazareth. In the context of my experiences today the 'light' of God remains Jesus of Nazareth. However, Diarmuid O'Murchu, a member of the Catholic Sacred Heart Missionary Order, sums up the Jesus experience of many progressive Christians in his book 'Evolutionary Faith' where he says of Jesus: "The wholeness that Jesus models for us is not in the power of his Death, but in the power of the radical way he lived Life - so radical, original and inspiring that it cost him an untimely death. And central to this new way of being human is the call to work for right relationships and the building of faith communities based on love and justice. Relational wholeness rather than individual prowess is the goal to which we are all called. Jesus serves as a power not to be imitated, but rather as an empowerer who can liberate us to empower others so that together we can build up that new world order, which the Gospels call the Kingdom of God."
Down the millennia, countless numbers of Christians have contributed immensely to the development of civilisation and to ending tyranny, the slave trade, poverty, and so on. Undoubtedly members of the Christian Church have been a force for good especially when they have been outward looking and outward working for the benefit of those less well off than them selves.
But Christianity has also been a force of great evil whenever Christians have been involved in the genocide of native peoples as European empires were established in New World and Third World communities. The Christian Church has been evil whenever it went into religious wars, slaughtering others in the name of the Catholic or the Protestant Christian God. Is it any wonder that many Jews, Hindus and Muslims continue to be very suspicious of the Christian Church?
Concerning the Kingdom of God on earth, the Christian Church was and remains very important, but it is only a part of the Kingdom of God. Sadly, in an increasingly uncertain age, too often the institutional Christian Church, its denominations and its buildings have become places of retreat from the world outside. For some people the buildings have become sanctuaries of protection rather than community powerhouses to enable and to encourage each one of us to become agents of change both in the world and of the world.
Of course, the church should be a place of comfort and joy - a place of community and belonging, but primarily, through its communal fellowship, [that is O'Murchu's 'relational wholeness'] the church should be a place of mutual empowerment for one another to get out there to change the world for the better - to turn the world the right way up.
It is from this Pentecost platform of action rather than words; of comfort and joy, of community and belonging that we can take sacred risks for change. It is important that we, as members of the Christian Church, interpret the word 'testify' more as a call to action rather than as a declaration of words. The time has come for us to work even more enthusiastically towards changing this world, God's world, for the better for all people and for the environment alike.
Following Jesus the 'light' of God is not about sitting comfortably but it is about prophetic actions to challenge and to change wherever life is diminished by selfishness and greed; by poverty and war; by economic exploitation and inhumanity; by supermarket food waste on a staggering scale. Sadly the list seems to be endless.
Also, let us acknowledge the evil in the appalling actions by some members of the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11, documented this past week in the summary of the US Senate report. As followers of Jesus the 'light' of God, we cannot sit back and say, "Oh well, that's America for you." Even though it was denied for some 6 years, let us not forget that the British Government and intelligence services were also involved in the anti al-Qaeda US rendition and torture program that went well beyond any rule of law or legitimate claim to holding the moral high ground in the conflict with terrorists.
Can you believe that the British Government has lost 'secret' documents that detailed the fact that two US rendition flights carrying detainees en route to torture had made, with our Government's permission, use of the British air base on Diego Garcia in 2002?
Can you believe that in 2005, the then British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, denied any knowledge of British involvement in the rendition program? In 2007, Parliament's own Intelligence and Security Committee reported that there was "no evidence that the UK agencies were complicit in any extraordinary rendition operations ... that there is no evidence that US rendition flights have used UK airspace". And then, in 2008, David Milliband, who was by then British Foreign Secretary, publicly confessed in Parliament that the earlier statements concerning the two US rendition flights using Diego Garcia were 'spectacularly untrue'.
Doesn't it make you angry to know that there are those amongst our elected politicians who lie and deny so unashamedly on so many issues? Is it any wonder that British politicians are held in such low esteem and that the majority of people now say that they have no trust in either our politicians or the political process? In fact, according to a recent UK public opinion poll, politicians are the least trusted profession in the country, being more distrusted than even bankers and estate agents.
And when this last week 'The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK' report was published it drew the comment from Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, that although he was shocked by the poverty that he had seen on a recent visit to the Congo, he found the plight of working families going hungry in wealthy Britain "even more shocking."
At least the big supermarket chains are responding positively to Welby's condemnation over their food wastage - some 15 million tons of food thrown away annually by British supermarkets whilst at the same time this country needs food banks to feed hungry families!
Doesn't it make you angry to know that the Trussell Trust recently reported that there were 40,898 food banks in Britain in 2009/10 but now that number has more than doubled to at least 913,138?
The question that I am asking is not how many more food banks will be needed but rather, what are we concerned Christians doing about economic policies and austerity measures that mean that many working families do not earn sufficient money - do not earn a living wage, so they have to rely upon food banks to ensure that their children are fed?
Homelessness figures issued by Shelter this past Friday indicate that 93,000 children in Britain will be homeless this Christmas, up from 90,000 last year, and currently 15,000 families are living in bed and breakfast accommodation.
And all who are buying Christmas presents from Amazon, are you aware of the reports that were presented a year ago by BBC television, Channel 4 television and the Daily Mail that Amazon treats it workers in the most appalling ways, such as timed toilet breaks, zero-hour contracts and punishments for talking? The BBC investigation concluded that Amazon's working conditions could cause its workers "mental and physical illness". Are you aware of the immense buying power of Amazon that, for example, allegedly manipulates the market of book publishers and authors? Doesn't Amazon make you angry?
So when faced with all these situations, will we just sit back and say, "What can I do about it"? Or "What has all this to do with being Christian?" Or worse still, "I thought that this would be the usual comfort and joy Advent sermon - and anyway, Christmas is only 11 days away and I still have to buy and wrap up the presents."
If we Christians and others of good will who are concerned for the plight of the poor, no matter where they are on God's earth - if we are not interested enough to challenge our politicians and supermarket chains and business leaders, then what hope is there for the future for any of us?
Following Jesus is not a comfortable picnic on a lazy sunny afternoon. Following Jesus is costly. Daniel Berrigan is a 93 year old American Jesuit priest, peace activist, and poet. He was one of the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War. One of Berrigan's Principles is, "If you're serious about Jesus you better look good on wood."
Some 20 years before Berrigan, the German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote in his book 'Cost of Discipleship', "When Jesus Christ calls a man [sic] he bids him come and die."
For one who has made a living through words, it is in retirement where I am finding words of belief to be far less important. What really matters to me now is the amount of time I have available and am prepared to use actively in the peace and justice work that is, as I understand it, the Kingdom of God on earth.
It is my actions as a follower of Jesus the 'light' of God rather than any orthodoxy of belief that really matters in God's world today. In his new book 'Progressive Faith and Practice', Rev Dr Roger Ray, pastor of the Community Christian Church in Springfield, Missouri, writes, "Jesus as a teacher of radical compassion and self sacrificing devotion to the truth, continues to be a symbol of the kind of spiritual depth we must claim as our own in order to transform the world in ways that bring good news to the poor and provide a bulwark against the abuses of the powerful."
Of course, being a Fair Trade church and supporting the local food bank and numerous charities - and the way in which each one of you serves your family members, friends and neighbours: these are practical out workings of your Christianity. But there is always more to do and more choices to make. Words of belief on their own will change nothing.
Churches that turn inwards and become communities of comfortable retreat from the world are choosing to die. Individuals choosing to take small and occasionally bigger and sometimes costly actions on behalf of the poor, the marginalised and the exploited - this, as I experience it, is what living the Kingdom of God is all about.
"There is one sent from God, whose name is [your name / my name] to be a witness to testify to the light. [your name / my name] is not the light, but [your name / my name] is called to testify to the light."
As always, the choice is yours and the choice is mine and the time is now.
John 1:6-8 (NRSVA)
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the 'light'.Copyright ©: 2014, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.