Sermon given by Revd Sue McCoan Sunday 4th Nov, St. Andrew’s Ealing
A few weeks ago, I was walking through Wembley on my way to visit someone. On the stretch of road between the church and where they live there’s a sheltered housing complex for elderly people. I’d passed it before, and the only reason I’d noticed it then was that it was where I crossed the road.
On this occasion, though, I noticed it because there was a security guard standing in the street outside. This is a street of suburban houses, with very few people about. It seemed odd.
On the way back from the visit, he was still there, still with nobody else about. So I asked him if there had been some trouble. He said no, but they were having a bit of a celebration, and they thought they needed extra security.
This is an area of Wembley with a high proportion of Jewish people; there’s a synagogue just down the road. It turns out that this sheltered housing is all or mainly for Jewish people, and they were celebrating the Jewish New Year. How innocent is that? And yet they were so afraid of attack that they had paid to have an armed guard posted outside.
Walking back to the church, I passed the synagogue and the faith school that is attached to it. The school was closed, but there were 2 men in suits, who looked like the equivalent of our church elders, one by the gate and one on the school steps, guarding the building. When the school is open there is always a Police presence outside the gates. But I’ve never seen the children; the playground railings are boarded up to a height of about 8 feet.
This is Britain in the 21st Century. What are we coming to, that elderly people can’t have a tea party in peace, and children have to play in secret, just because of their faith?
And then, last weekend, there was the dreadful attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that left eleven people dead and many others injured.
These are difficult times. There seems to be a rising tide of hatred and anger in the world, not just against Jewish people but on all sorts of communities and groups.
The question for us is, what, if anything, can we do about it?
I wish I had an answer to this, and I don’t. But there are some pointers in our bible readings today. In Deuteronomy, Moses is giving the people of Israel the first commandment, to love God. They have known suffering – they have not long come out of slavery in Egypt – and they will know it again, as they adjust to settling in a land as strangers. Moses reminds them that, whatever happens, God is with them – and they are to hang on to this at all times. Twice in this passage, Moses says. ‘Hear, O Israel’. This is important stuff. Hear, O Israel. The Lord your God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. Keep these words in your heart; tell them to your children; keep them before your eyes, write them on your hands, paint them on your doorframes and gateposts – whatever it takes so that you never, ever, ever forget to love the Lord your God.
That’s our first pointer, to hold on to this unfailing love of God.
Moving to our gospel reading, having just read this, it’s no surprise that when a teacher of the Law comes to Jesus and asks, what is the most important commandment?, Jesus gives the answer: Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord, you shall love the Lord your God and so on. It is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy. And Jesus adds a second part, this time from Leviticus: You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.
It’s a familiar passage, this summary of the Law, but here’s the thing that struck me for today. Many times, in the gospels, the religious leaders come to speak to Jesus, and almost always they are out to criticise, or argue, or trap him in some way. Jesus is in Jerusalem now, after Palm Sunday, and just before this passage the Pharisees and Sadducees have had a go at him. But here, there is agreement. The teacher of the law hears Jesus answer and says, ‘You’re right’, and then builds on what Jesus said, this love for God is more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices.
You might expect Jesus, after all the attacks, to be wary and ready to argue back. But where there is agreement, then he acknowledges that agreement.
There’s a pointer here about the need to keep talking with people of other faiths. I know Jesus and the teacher of the law were not of different faiths, they were both Jewish, but they had differing viewpoints within their faith. Nevertheless, they found common ground in the basic command: love God, love your neighbour. In a hostile world, people of faith need to support one another, and they do. Let us stand together with, and stand up for, other faith groups under attack.
There’s also a pointer here about the much more difficult situation of how to deal with hatred.
The other day I was in a conversation with a group of people whom I know and trust, and it emerged as we spoke that their political ideas were different from mine by quite some way. There was no hatred or anger, at least not from them, just different opinions. But I found myself thrown by this. At first, I confess I was annoyed – could they not see how wise I was, and therefore right? But then I felt uncomfortable. I’m thinking, I’m not going to change my views through listening to them, so, equally it’s not likely that they are going to change theirs by listening to me. But I don’t want to fall out with these people; I like them. So what to do?
Love God, love your neighbour. I had to say I disagreed – I don’t have to lie – but I didn’t have to argue. We were able to find some common ground, for the things we all care about. And we could at least make a beginning in learning to see where each other is coming from.
Like I said, this was a mild example. I’m not sure how brave I would be if there was real anger directed at me. Happily, there are people who are brave, and who do this much better than me. One example came directly out of the shooting in Pittsburgh. One of the members of the Tree of Life synagogue is Dr Jeff Cohen, who is President of the Allegheny General Hospital where the gunman was taken for treatment. The man, who had shouted about wanting to kill all the Jews, was being tended by Jewish nurses and a Jewish doctor. Dr Cohen himself went to see how he was. The security guards around the gunman asked how he could do that, after what this man had done to his community. Dr Cohen said, ‘We are here at the hospital to take care of sick people. We’re not here to judge.’
This is loving God, and loving your neighbour. This is meeting the anger of the world with the grace of God. This is being a saint who lets the light shine through. May we be inspired by this example. May we shine as best we can.