14′h August Meditation….
How is it possible to say anything to you today without mentioning the terrible events of the last week. Riots in cities not very far away from here. People hurt and killed, families barricaded inside their homes for fear of the mob, whole buildings torched and destroyed, shops and businesses looted. We are disgusted and afraid, and more than a little concerned that it might just spread north of the border. Already some people have been arrested for trying to incite violence in Glasgow and Dundee. Surely for every one that is arrested there must be many more that get away with it. Three questions, I think , are in all our minds today.
- Why has this happened?
- Will it happen again?
- Can it be stopped?
If you’ve been reading your papers, watching and listening to the news and the commentators then you will have heard many theories on the causes. Very few people are content to say that it happened in response to the killing of one young man by police forces. That may well have been the match that started the original fires of hell burning but what was it that fanned the flames so expertly that the rioting spread as far and as quickly as it did? What is the underlying factor that made the atmosphere so conducive to civil disorder?
Well I’m not a politician or a commentator or a journalist and so I don’t have the definitive answer to these questions but like many others I do have some theories and here in this place, as Christians, we try to make sense of our world in the light of our faith. What can our readings today tell us about this situation? Can Jesus give us any guidance as to the root causes of our current societal ill-health. Because our society must be sick, a healthy community does not have to witness these events surely? Does our faith have a comment to make to the secular world? Is Christianity to be reserved for the community and the rarified air of the church alone or can it spill out into the highways and byways. Even the former Prime Minister Tony Blair in a speech made in Sydney Australia recently has been reported as saying that religion must be brought back into the political sphere, and further that the lack of religious education and religious observance in our educational establishments and in our society at large, has left us floundering morally.
Over the years I have met a significant number of ‘believers’ and very spiritually aware people who don’t see the need to belong to a community of faith. I’m sure we all know people who would say they believe in something higher than themselves, some moving force behind the universe but they don’t see the need to spend time being part of an institution like the Church. And I must say when it comes to the day to day running of things, committees and paperwork and policies, it is very seductive to think that we could really just do without the Church and get on with working out our beliefs on our own.
Well I am realistic enough about the nature of us as human beings to know that it just would not work. We cannot educate our children or our professionals without some form of organised structured learning that can be evaluated and regulated. We need places where we can be challenged about our ideas and where we can nurture the kind of values that make for a peaceful and equitable society. As for Tony Blair (and I’m
not saying I was one of his biggest fans) , I believe that he may well be on the right track. There are some things that our faith has to say to the world that can only be said through an organised group like the church of Jesus Christ. It is here in this place and in the debating halls and training schools of the churches worldwide that our faith is being constantly challenged by the rapid changes in our society. The question we ask ourselves time and again is ‘Are there some universal truths that are timeless and that can cut across class, financial and cultural barriersT Does the Gospel have something to say that is valid regardless of any changes in our global society? Yes I believe that it does. And these two readings from Matthew challenge us to look very carefully at our own prejudices and our own judgmental nature and they speak to our society today in the wake of these riots.
The first reading sees Jesus talking about the Pharisees again. He’s speaking about the externals of religion, the traditions, the things that we cling to. A wee story to illustrate this…
One day walking through the campus at Aberdeen University I was stopped by a Professor from the History Department, who noticed that I was wearing a rather stormy face. He greeted me and asked how the world of faith and salvation was treating me. I replied that it had little to do with faith and salvation and much more to do with chairs and pianos! The only real disagreements and unpleasantness I have witnessed in a 20 plus years career in the Church has been to do with what I would consider the peripherals. Things like flower rota’s and seating and siting of pianos or fonts or other bits and bobs. We are terribly good at getting caught up in the peripherals, in the things that don’t really matter. In this first reading Jesus is saying just that. The book of Leviticus is full of rules and regulations regarding food and eating. Jesus in this one short passage tells them that obeying the externals of religion is not where it’s at! It’s about what we think and feel in our hearts, what our intentions are. So we can be the staunchest Church member or elder or minister. We can be a pillar of the Kirk, go to all the Bible studies and prayer groups in the world, say all the right things to all the right people, quote scripture till the cows come home but if our heart is not filled with love and kindness towards our neighbour and our God then it is all for nothing. And how do we judge a person’s inner self and heart? Only God can see into the heart and he will judge us by what he finds there.
The second reading tells a strange story. This story sees Jesus outside his own home territory for the first and only time in his ministry. He has gone to find some peace from the crowds, he knows his time of trial is near and he needs some space to think and to pray and to prepare himself for what is to come. A woman hearing that the Jewish healer was among them came to beg him for help. To begin with he ignores her but the disciples urge him to pay her attention so that she will go away and leave them alone. They don’t ask him to deal with her because they feel sorry for her plight but only because she is persistent and is an irritant. Jesus tests her faith and her resolve by asking her what is indeed a very insulting question.. she comes back, quick as a flash with a witty response and he grants her heart’s desire. It’s at this point, just before Jesus’ arrest and trial that the disciples first realise that their mission is much wider than they thought. The example of Jesus’ generosity towards a woman of a despised race has told them that they are to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world. There is to be no distinction between Caananite or Samaritan or Jew or Greek—An the letter to the Galatians we read these words Chapter 3 v 28 “So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women, you are one in union with Jesus Christ.”
So, in conclusion; What has caused these riots? Of course there is no one simple answer but we live in a society that is divided along all sorts of lines. We have a wider than ever gulf between the haves and have nots. Unemployment is rising as are prices and we have bred a generation of greedy people, who want it all and want it now, whose heroes and role models are celebrities or film or TV stars with dubious and questionable lifestyles. A generation of placard wavers who hate anyone who is not of their tribe. Our society is a secular one that tolerates everything except Christianity and any kind of moral censure. We are like a large dysfunctional family that has got out of hand. Does the Christian Gospel have anything to say to us today …. I am spoilt for choice. Jesus has a word for this and every generation and today he is saying “Look to your own heart and see what you find there”. The change in our society will begin with each one of us. We are the remnant of faith. It is to us that Jesus is looking. Do people know that we are Christians by the way we treat them, by the way we act, by the words we speak and the things we do. Do we make a difference in the way we treat people because of their status. Who do we judge and accuse. What kind of people do we turn our back on? Religion can only be brought back into our secular world is someone takes it there! The world can only be changed one small piece at a time. Jesus only had 12 disciples, we have millions of Christians in the world today. Are you ready to do your part?
“Look to your heart and see where your treasure lies.”