Sunday, 10 August 2014

"What are you doing here?" A sermon

(Sermon for 10/7/14, Proper 14A, Hodge Hill Church)
Readings:            1Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14:22-33
For 9 days in the summer of 2004, on a strip of wasteland on the border of Hulme and Moss Side in Manchester, close to the home of Jamal al Hairth, a detainee of the American internment camp in Guantanamo Bay, a razor-wire perimeter fence contained a fully functioning replica of the American Camp X-Ray, complete with local volunteers acting as guards and prisoners. Every morning for the 9 days of the theatrical installation, the American flag was raised and the American national anthem was blasted out across Hulme from the guarded watch-tower.
This is Camp X-Ray, as it was called, made very visible, and for Jamal’s Mancunian neighbours brought unavoidably close to home, the stark reality of the Western world’s regime of everyday fear and ‘securitization’ which, for most of us on most days, happens around us without us even noticing. We have been trained to be suspicious and afraid, of so-called ‘terrorist threats’ and ‘radicals’ who destabilize the status quo, and we have been trained to accept restrictions on our movement, on our gatherings, on where we can walk and where we can sit and what we can question, in the name of ‘security’, ‘safety’, ‘protection’. We’ve been trained to accept the necessity of surveillance, of the arms industry, of ‘superpowers’ that could, at the touch of the button, destroy the planet we live on and all its people – and are in fact already, just more slowly, doing exactly that. And we’ve been trained then to forget about it – to not think of it as a crisis of democracy, of humanity, of the created world – but as normal life, as inevitable and ongoing, as the only world that can be, with no imaginable alternative.
Elijah too lived in a world where fear and force were apparently the only reality there was. He lived under the regime of King Ahab, supporter of the followers of the god Baal. The altars of Yahweh, who some once said was the one true God, are in ruins, and Elijah, Yahweh’s prophet and champion has, you might remember, been waging a valiant war against Baal and his prophets, culminating in a show of force on Mount Carmel where these rivals gathered to see which god could burn a sacrificed bull with fire from heaven. As the prayers of the prophets of Baal piled up, Elijah mocked them, suggesting, among other things, that perhaps Baal can’t put in an appearance because he’s busy with a bowel movement. When it’s Elijah’s turn to offer his sacrifice, first he rebuilds the altar of Yahweh, then completely soaks his bull in water, and Boom!, the lightning strikes. All present fall to the ground, crying: ‘Yahweh is the true God.’ And Elijah immediately takes advantage of this, pointing his finger at the 450 prophets of Baal, ordering that they be seized and killed. His order is obeyed at once.
After this triumph, however, Elijah falls into a bit of a depression. He goes off into the desert, and wants to die. God gives him the food he needs for survival, but not even that pleases him much, and an angel has to tell him to eat up. He does, eventually, and the food keeps him going for the 40-day, 40-night hike to Mount Horeb, like Moses had done before him. Once he gets there, Elijah hides in a cave, and God has to come and find him. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asks. And Elijah replies:
"I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."
There is a tragic heroism in Elijah’s little speech, but not far underneath the surface are three little unspoken words: “and I’m afraid”.
Elijah is then ordered to come out of the cave and stand before the Lord, who is going to pass by. And you know the story: first comes a mighty wind, which splits mountains and breaks rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then comes an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and then comes a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there comes a still small voice – a sound of sheer silence…
And it’s at this point that Elijah goes out and stands at the cave’s entrance, and God speaks to him again, again asking him what he’s doing there, and once again, Elijah answers:
"I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."
Word for word, the exact same speech. It’s as if nothing at all has changed.
And then the story reaches its extraordinary anticlimax. God tells Elijah to go off to Damascus to anoint Jehu king, and to find Elisha to be his successor as prophet. And, by the way, God adds, there are 7,000 Israelites out there who haven’t forsaken the covenant with Yahweh. Elijah’s story, and his ministry, is pretty much over – but there are plenty of others out there who have been, and will continue to be, faithful to Elijah’s God.
This is, in fact, a conversion story. When the story begins, Elijah’s God is a god like Baal, but bigger and tougher, and Elijah is his spokesman, confident, obedient, faithful – perhaps just a little bit arrogant with it. His God works wonders, and Elijah himself is in the centre of the drama.
But when it all goes quiet, as Elijah sinks into depression in the desert, he begins to doubt the value of all the dramatics of Mount Carmel. And on another mountain, the truth finally takes hold of him: his God is not in the earthquake, wind and fire, not in the impressive performances and theatrical victories – but in the still, small voice after the excitement has died down. And Elijah, rather than the heroic martyr he imagines himself to be, the only one to remain loyal as all around are faithless and hostile, is told by God, gently but firmly, that there are a good 7,000 faithful others up God’s sleeve, and that Elijah should get on with the mundane, unspectacular work of handing on his responsibilities to some of them.
There is, in Elijah’s conversion story, an invitation to conversion for us too. We are invited, with Elijah, to look and look again, to keep looking through the drama of smoke and lightning storms, through the destruction of earthquakes and missile strikes, through the apparent ‘protection’ of ‘security fences’ and firewalls, until we are able to recognise the faces of other human beings, like us, fearful, fragile, vulnerable, broken. And we are invited, with Elijah, to listen and listen again, for the still small voice that addresses us by name, and tells us to go, and join our hands with our neighbours, in the mundane, unspectacular work of building relationships of solidarity, friendship, and peace.
In 2001, the International Solidarity Movement was set up, under the guidance and invitation of Palestinian peace activists, to invite international volunteers to Israel/Palestine. ISM volunteers engage in non-violent direct action, intended to ‘dramatize the terrible conditions under which Palestinians live because of the Occupation, and to protect them from physical violence from Israeli soldiers and settlers’. Over the last 13 years, ISM volunteers from around the world have accompanied Palestinians to harvest olives in occupied territory; acted as human shields against Israeli military or settler attacks; delivered supplies to refugee camps under curfew; participated in peaceful demonstrations; dismantled roadblocks and observed the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints. One motivation (among many) for inviting internationals has been the belief that faced with the presence of foreign bodies, the likelihood of human rights abuses would be decreased, and that some kind of media publicity would be generated. ISM volunteers are present in Gaza right now, many of them living alongside Gazan Palestinians in the UN schools and shelters. We know all too well, from the news coverage of the last few weeks, that that has not stopped terrible killings of children, women and men by Israeli forces, in what many observers are saying are not just violations of international law, but war crimes.
One British volunteer for ISM, Sharon, interviewed a few years ago, had been shot in the stomach by an Israeli soldier while on a demonstration in Palestine. Sharon insisted that the experience only confirmed her determination to ‘put her body in the way’ of violent attacks, to risk her life in solidarity with the most vulnerable:
“You’re essentially ... handing over your body to someone who has the power to damage it,” she said, “and, you know, for some people that’s the most fundamentally frightening thing you could come up with... OK, so I’ve been arrested and I’ve been in prison for a short time, and I’ve been shot... [but that] means, when all these things are threatened, to stop me doing what I want to do, I can think, well, I can handle that... that’s not going to stop me.”
Handing over your body, in vulnerable solidarity. Perhaps not without fear, but determined not to let the fear be the thing that stops, prevents, paralyses action. There is something strangely like walking on water in Sharon’s attitude, something that sounds remarkably like following in the wake of the christlike God. Exposing the forces of violence – that so often manage to hide themselves – for what they are, but also making visible, ‘witnessing to’, another way, another way of living in the world, a way of vulnerable, risky, solidarity, friendship and love. We have seen something similar this week, very close to home, in Shenstone, just north of Sutton Coldfield, as protestors locked shut the doors of a factory that makes engines for Israeli unmanned, armed drones, and kept vigil on its roof for 2 days and nights. A merely symbolic gesture, perhaps, but just as with the transplanting of Camp X-Ray to inner city Manchester, exposing the world we live in, and embodying a glimpse that another very different world is possible. In fact, there is the possibility that we as a church might join, in the days, weeks and months to come, with other Christians in a regular vigil at the UAV factory in Shenstone, as a continuing witness to the possibility of peace.
Today, at the end of our prayers of intercession, we’ll have a moment to use our bodies in a very small, but significant and symbolic way: for each of us to light a candle, for peace in Gaza, and across our troubled, violence-torn world. Please come and offer your prayer – but more than that, ask God to show you ways that you can be your prayer, living it out in your daily life in little actions of vulnerable, risky, solidarity, friendship and love.
I want to finish with a poem from Kathy Galloway, Christian, peace-maker, and a member of the Iona community:
Do not retreat into your private world,
That place of safety, sheltered from the storm,
Where you may tend your garden, seek your soul,
And rest with loved ones where the fire burns warm.
To tend a garden is a precious thing,
But dearer still the one where all may roam,
The weeds of poison, poverty and war,
Demand your care, who call the earth your home.
To seek your soul it is a precious thing,
But you will never find it on your own,
Only among the clamour, threat, and pain
Of other people's need will love be known.
To rest with loved ones is a precious thing,
But peace of mind exacts a higher cost,
Your children will not rest and play in quiet,
While they still hear the crying of the lost.
Do not retreat into your private world,
There are more ways than firesides to keep warm.
There is no shelter from the rage of life,
So meet its eye, and dance within the storm.

  • Elijah commentary drawn from James Alison, ‘Theology amidst the stones and dust’, in Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, pp.27-30
  • The stories of This is Camp X-Ray and ISM volunteers are taken from Stefan Skrimshire, Politics of Fear, Practices of Hope, p.157, pp.184-5
  • A couple of snippets of wisdom on ‘making visible’ lie in the background to these reflections too. They can be found at

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

"What I need is a good listening to"

“What I need is a good listening to”. That was the headline, a few years ago, of a powerful ad campaign run by the Children’s Society. Not the “good talking to” from a cross adult, more familiar to many children. But adults need “a good listening to”, too.

In Hodge Hill, we run a little drop-in place, twice a week, that we call Open Door. The name is quite deliberate – it’s a place where you don’t need to make an appointment, where you can come and go when you want to, and where you’ll find a warm welcome, a smiling face, a cup of tea, and a listening ear. It’s also a place where you can get help accessing the internet, writing a CV, searching for jobs, making phone calls, and all kinds of other practical support. “You feel equal in here” says Stefan, one of our ‘regulars’. And if people often come through the door very aware of their ‘needs’, we’re really keen to help them discover and unlock their gifts: the things they’re passionate about, the things they know about, the things they can do, that they could share with their neighbours.

And that’s where ListenUp! comes in for us. We were really keen to find opportunities to give people an opportunity for a longer, more in-depth “good listening to”. To help them become more aware of the resources and resourcefulness they have, the ways they have – even when things are really tough – to ‘make ends meet’, to ‘keep head above water’. And to give them safe spaces where they could also voice those experiences of being overwhelmed, of ‘going under’. In the process, relationships of trust, understanding and empathy are deepened, and friendships have a chance to grow, bridging differences of background, experience and nationality.

But ListenUp! opens up possibilities for even more. We work really hard in Hodge Hill to celebrate and nurture the ‘hidden treasures’ in our neighbourhoods – the networks of support and care, the groups where people come together around a shared interest or concern. The conversations we have with people through ListenUp! will hopefully highlight and uncover many of these, but also reveal some of the ‘gaps’: what kinds of local support are missing, that would make a real difference to people’s ability to ‘make life work’? And what can we develop together – with the people we’ve listened to potentially taking a leading role?

And then there’s the bigger picture. We know first-hand that the savage cuts to services and the so-called ‘reform’ of the welfare system are having a huge impact on many, many people in our neighbourhoods. But ListenUp! helps us get into the nitty-gritty detail: exactly what difference does the bedroom tax, or a sanction from the Job Centre, make to this household and its livelihood? And how do they manage to cope, and what might happen if they ‘go under’? ListenUp! builds up a real, lived ‘evidence base’, helping to challenge and undermine the easy prejudices, and building a rooted, shared authority to speak and act for change.

Listening seems to be a quiet thing. But it’s actually the seed-bed of revolution. As listening ‘hears others to speech’, it empowers them as new ‘hearers’ in turn. Those who heard Jesus cry ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ became the witnesses to, and agents of, resurrection. It’s a world-changing movement, and it begins with “a good listening”.

This blog was originally written for Church Action on Poverty in March. We've now completed our first round of ListenUp! conversations, and worked with the Church Urban Fund to write up the process and our early findings. The report and executive summary are available at: