Tuesday, 16 August 2011

How do we respond? (A sermon after the ‘riots’)

In the face of the events of the past week, how do we respond? Our faith demands we ask the question – not as Daily Mail readers or Guardian readers, but as Christians. And our faith will not allow us to lock our doors, board up our windows and hide safely inside – it compels us to open our doors wider, to look outwards, in fact, to go outwards to seek to work out how we ‘do our faith in public’ now.

There’s a natural first response, and it’s the right first response for us. It’s to lament– to seek to voice our shock, our anger, our grief, and to join our voices with those others who lament today: for destruction and lost livelihoods, for the death of loved ones.

And bound up in that first response for us is a second obvious one: to pray– for all those who’ve been affected; for those who’ve been seeking to re-establish calm and order and clean up the mess; for those in authority, for wisdom in choosing their words and making their decisions; and, of course, for those who have been involved themselves in the rioting and looting…

And beyond lament and prayer…? As Christians, we are driven back to our Gospel: where is the ‘good news’ to be found?

And our lectionary, as so often, comes up trumps, offers us the right story at the right time. Today, we encounter Jesus and the Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-28).

Jesus is on a journey here – both literally and metaphorically. He is far from home, the other side of the lake, ‘the other side of the world’, in the district of Tyre & Sidon. Seeking a bit of calm, perhaps. But a woman finds him, pursues him, shouts after him. A parent, a desperate parent. “Lord! Son of David! Have mercy on me! A demon controls my daughter. She is suffering terribly.”

And Jesus responds. With silence. He ignores her completely.

She tries again. And this time, Jesus responds with indifference. “I was sent only to the people of Israel. They are like lost sheep.” He washes his hands of her. ‘Nothing to do with me’ he says.

A third time, and she’s begging on her knees in front of him. And Jesus says “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.” Jesus calls her the woman a dog, less than human, not one of ‘the children’. Vermin.

There is, thank God, a fourth stage in this encounter. The woman persists: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their owners’ table.” And finally, Jesus catches a glimpse of this woman, this ‘other’, as a fellow human being, a child of God; finally, he hears her desperate cries for help; finally, he opens up to respond to her with compassion. “Woman, you have great faith! You will be given what you are asking for.” But it’s taken time – even for Jesus, it’s taken time – to get to this point. He’s had to go on quite a journey.

And so must we. Our faith demands it of us. In a very different context, in 1960s America, Martin Luther King said this: “at bottom, riots are always the language of the unheard.” As everyone from politicians to archbishops have said this week, this is not about condoning the destruction and the violence. But we need to start listening today – amid the destruction, the violence – to seek to hear the cries of the unheard.

Listen to these four voices then, from the London Borough of Hackney:

  • "There's two worlds in this borough. More and more middle classes are coming and we're being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it's the West End, we can't afford the rents. We're the outcasts, we're not wanted any more. There's nothing for us."
  • "Youths are frustrated, they want all the nice clothes. They ain't got no money, they don't have jobs," a 41-year-old youth worker said. "To live, to have money in their pocket, they have to thieve, they have to rob. The people that run this country, they got money, they are rich, they got nice houses. They don't care about poor people."
  • "Everyone's heard about the police taking bribes, the members of parliament stealing thousands with their expenses. They set the example," the youth said.
  • "The only way we can get out of this is education, and we're not entitled to it, because of the cuts. Even for bricklaying you need a qualification and a waiting list for a course. I signed up in November, and still haven't heard back," one young Kurdish man said.

What we have seen this week are not ‘isolated incidents by a minority’ – not, as David Cameron would have us believe, ‘pockets of society’ that are ‘sick’. The events of this week have laid bare a sickness in society as a whole – in all of us…

  • The multiple pressures on families today – on working parents, on those who can’t find work, on the single parent who struggles to do everything, on the poorest who battle to make ends meet
  • The breakdown of community – where neighbours don’t know, let alone trust and support each other, where children and young people are ‘someone else’s problem’
  • The long-term neglect of our poorest neighbourhoods, including those in our own area, our own parish – and the cuts that will simply make things worse
  • And then… the ‘state religion’ of consumerism that says ‘I shop, therefore I am’; an economy that depends on us ‘buying now, and paying later’; a system designed to foster our discontent and our constant desire for more ‘stuff’
  • And an inequality, where the richest 10% of our society are a hundred times – a hundred times – richer than the poorest 10%; and that says to the poorest, ‘you don’t have, therefore you are not’
  • A breakdown of trust in key institutions – where police officers are paid by newspapers, politicians claim expenses for non-existent houses, and bankers pay themselves ridiculous bonuses while their workers are getting laid off
  • And a society where young people are dehumanised and demonised – as ‘hoodies’ and ‘feral rats’, long before the events of the past week; where so many of our young have no place to call their own, no future to look forward to, no self-worth, no hope, nothing to lose…

Listen again to Martin Luther King: “There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don't have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it." Prophetic words, from over 50 years ago.

So how do we respond? We are driven back to our Gospel again… but let’s first spend a moment thinking about jazz.

In improvised jazz, the musicians in the group are practised at listening carefully to each other. Anything any of the musicians play we might call an ‘offer’ – a snippet of tune, a clever harmony, even a wrong note or two. And the other musicians make choices, in every moment: to ‘block’ an offer – ignore it, write it off as a mistake, or simply pursue their own thread of music unaffected by the other musicians; or to ‘accept’ an offer – to echo it, develop it, creatively run with what they’ve heard from their fellow musicians to make something more of it. The best improvisers are those with the daring and creativity to ‘overaccept’ all offers – to take even what might have been a mistake or a crashing discord, and develop into something musically new, different, beautiful, exciting.

The Canaanite woman is an improviser ‘par excellence’. She won’t be put off by Jesus’ persistent blocking, and when he calls her a dog she says ‘Yes, but…’ Even the dogs get crumbs of bread. She takes Jesus’ indifference, resistance and hostility, and daringly, creatively, turns it into a life-giving, healing ‘Yes’. And in doing so, she reflects a God who, as we see in the cross and resurrection, does likewise: takes our indifference, resistance and hostility, and daringly, creatively, turns it into a life-giving, healing ‘Yes’.

So how can we do likewise? Well, in the last few days, we have been offered glimpses of what such daring, creative ‘overaccepting’ in the face of destruction and violence might look like.  The ‘riot wombles’, the multi-coloured army wielding brooms and mugs of tea, a great symbol of down-to-earth practical support, togetherness, ‘Englishness’ even. So too have been the Sikhs and Muslims in our own city, who’ve come out to protect not their own, but each other’s places of worship. And more than any, perhaps, Tariq Jahan, just hours into the grief of losing his own son, calling not for revenge and reprisals, not for more violence, but for calm, for peace, for solidarity together, as parents, as people of faith, as citizens of one city.

Our own journey towards daring, creative ‘overacceptance’ starts with these examples.

We can join in the positive action – the clean-ups, the peace vigils – where we can – and where we can’t, we can give thanks for them, because gratitude, as we are discovering here, is the first step towards generosity.

We can, and must, come alongside the young people of our area – and we can, particularly, through our partnership as a church with Worth Unlimited at The Hub – through the work that Paul, Matt and Tim do, and volunteering ourselves in simple practical ways, whether through making tea or chopping up fruit, like Phyl – to listen to young people, hear their voices, their stories, their struggles, and begin to see them more clearly as human beings; to ‘invest’ in them our time, our trust, our friendship.

We can, and must, lobby our politicians – for investment in our poorest areas, in the most marginalized members of our society – in things like mentoring programmes, employment opportunities, support in education and within families.

But more than any of these, perhaps, we need to become, as a church, a different kind of community to the society that has been laid bare this week. A community of radical welcome, of radical listening; a community that values people not for what they have, or what they’ve done, but as beloved children of God; a community of young and old together, dedicated to peace-making, healing and reconciliation; a community, as our own vision proclaims, seeking to nurture compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope. Those five words have, this week, become more important than ever.

Can we even come close to being that kind of community – one that might make a real difference to those who come into contact with it? Dare we? Beginning today?