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David Hamid

To love the stranger

28. janúar 2007

Predikun við innsetningu sr. Bjarna Þórs Bjarnasonar í embætti innan Ensku biskupakirkjunnar, 28. janúar 2007 í Hallgrímskirkju.

Jer 1.4-10; Ps 71.1-6; 1 Cor 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30

On January 1st two countries joined the European Union, Bulgaria and Romania. Most EU citizens think this a good thing. However, there has been one rather strange consequence. The entrance of six reactionary representatives to the EU parliament in Strasbourg from Bulgaria and Romania, now means that there are sufficient members of that parliament from far-right groups to form a new bloc of members. It is called Integrity, Tradition, Sovereignty. They are a curious group, coming from the UK, France, Austria and Belgium besides Bulgaria and Romania. It includes such persons as Jean-Marie le Pen from the French Front National and Alessandra Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator’s granddaughter. The members that have formed this coalition do not like each other; they suspect people of other nationalities.  So they are united in being anti-Europe and xenophobic. Many are very prejudiced against immigrants, and the Gypsy or Roma people. Sadly, almost all are deeply anti-Semitic.

It is worrying to see the rise of this bloc in Europe, especially as it betrays tendencies towards dislike of foreigners, extreme nationalism, even racial bigotry which are hard to accept in a civilized and modern society. Even more so, these narrow attitudes are challenged by truth of the Christian Gospel.

There is a certain Xenophobia operating in the hearts and voices of the opposition to Jesus in the Gospel today. Jesus is in his home of Nazareth, has just proclaimed the Scriptures from Isaiah, and has taught in the synagogue and was well received. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words”.

If I were Jesus’s Press Secretary I would say to him that at this point that things were going really, really well. I would likely say to him, “Choose your words carefully, Jesus, as the crowd is eating out of your hand. It is your hometown crowd. They love you. Don’t lose them, Jesus!”

Well, Jesus did choose his words carefully. However they were not the words that a preacher wanting to please a crowd would choose. He starts off well. He speaks about some local heroes, Elijah and Elisha. Speaking about local heroes is usually a very good move, as politicians will tell you. But then he focuses on the strangest point about these two heroes. Elijah and Elisha were known for many great things, but Jesus picks out the fact that of all the starving widows that were in Israel, God sent Elijah to a foreign one, a gentile, one considered normally to belong to an enemy people, the widow at Zarephath in Sidon. Similarly with what he underlines about Elisha. There were a lot of lepers living in Israel, but who did Elisha go to heal? The one who was a Syrian, and not only that, Naaman the Syrian. He was the commander of the enemy army! It would be like a Christian preacher today speaking of God’s restoration and healing for Osama bin Laden!

So Jesus, hailed as a prophet, whose gracious words were heard and welcomed in his hometown, when these same words turned prophetic and seemed to imply that God cared for and was concerned about those who are not Jews, even for the enemy, the good citizens of Nazareth turn against him. And what a reaction from the gathered crowd. They drove him out of town, and tried to run him off a cliff! So if I were Jesus’s Press Secretary, at this point I would be tendering my resignation. 

Preachers may not often be lynched today by their congregation, thank goodness. But preachers do become unpopular, especially if they make their congregation feel less than specially privileged. It is OK for a preacher to be critical of those who are perceived by a given congregation to be beyond the boundaries of God’s grace: be they radical Muslims, Christian Fundamentalists, Liberals, Conservatives, whoever the congregation thinks is on the outside. But the reaction to Jesus was not just disagreement, but a violent one. His message was not only uncomfortable; it upset people to the point of them wanting to kill him. All the Gospels agree that from the moment Jesus sets foot in the pulpit, things get nasty.

It is a unique thing about Jesus. If you read about other religious leaders, it is not like that. When people go to listen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, they report that when he speaks there is such a serene quietness and peacefulness which comes over all. Not so with Jesus. Things were fine in Nazareth until he opened his mouth in the pulpit and then all hell broke lose. And remember this was only his first sermon! But we know that the opposition to his message will continue until in just a few weeks from now we will be at Golgotha, with him hanging from the cross as a result.

I suppose there is a huge question for us out of this Gospel: why would we want to follow Jesus with this seemingly crazy teaching message from God that our God actually reaches out in love to embrace those we would call our enemies? A God who even reaches out in love to those we hate? Why would we believe in God who seems to reaching out to and rescuing the wrong people? Why is this good news? Why would we believe in such a God and follow his Son Jesus?

I want to suggest to you today what is, I believe, a central teaching of our Christian faith. It is this: that God is love, and that, because God is love, if there happens to be any sort of god that gives us permission to hate someone, or to hurt someone – then that god is not the God of Jesus Christ, it must be a god of our own making, made up to justify our desire to hurt people and make barriers between them and us. We have trouble letting go of these gods of our own making; they constantly creep back into our lives.

But God’s love is constant for us. It overturns these feelings of division and hatred. Yes, God hates it when we hurt others, but God never comes to the point of hating us, of wanting to do us harm. God is love, even to the point of loving enemies. That is what Jesus came to show us on the cross. That is what he teaches us today.

It would be easy for us to sit in judgment of the citizens of Nazareth, to think how small minded they were. But it is too easy to be like them. The modern church, both Lutheran and Anglican, is being torn apart by trying to decide who is “in” and who is “out”.

Christians divide themselves against one another, and then comfort themselves with the knowledge that they are part of the “in group”, feeling assured that they have kept the true faith, or the correct belief, and the proper morals.

Today I am here formally to incorporate this congregation which is cared for by the Revd Bjarni Þor Bjarnasson into the Anglican diocese in Europe. This incorporation is done very simply, by my granting Pastor Bjarni permission to officiate in the Diocese in Europe. It is a procedure which is possible because of the Porvoo agreement which the Church of Iceland and the Church of England have both signed. In practical terms it means that this English language service, previously under the auspices of the Lutheran Church here in Iceland, takes on a sort of dual nationality, and also becomes officially an Anglican service, and your priest Bjarni, and indeed you as a congregation, now belong also to the Church of England as well as to the Church of Iceland. We become visibly one – transcending the barriers of distance, and history which have separated us.

The Porvoo agreement is vitally important to us as it helps us to avoid this syndrome of “in group”, that we have heard in the Gospel today. The Porvoo Agreement reminds us that the mission of the Church is not a narrow mission; it is always to those beyond our own inner circle. The Porvoo agreement and what we are celebrating in this service today is important as it helps us recognise that we are a community which is universal in its scope, because God’s love is universal in its reach. We affirm that to be part of the Church, is to give up a narrow-minded parochialism.

The world is divided; the Church is divided. And as the EU has seen there appear voices calling for further division and hardening of lines of separation. As followers of Jesus we need to shed the customary ways of thinking about the world and about ourselves. We are supposed to be one. The Gospel requires us to be transformed, to embrace a new Spirit that welcomes the outsider, the exile, the foreigner, the one who is different.

The Porvoo Agreement has a vision of the Church – it is a Church with a mission to all in every race and nation, preaching the gospel, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, baptizing and celebrating the eucharist; it is a Church which manifests through its visible communion the healing and uniting power of God amidst the divisions of humankind. The Porvoo agreement enables us to come together to manifest in common proclamation of the Gospel and celebration of the Sacraments, the mystery of God’s presence, God’s kingdom, and universal reach of God’s love.

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