Rejecting Us and Them

This was my sermon for Lent 2 – just two days after the heartbreaking mosque attacks on Christchurch, NZ. The readings were Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 where God renews his covenant with Abram and Luke 13:31-end where Jesus grieves over Jerusalem.

Our symbols in our Lent bags this week are tears.  They are sadly appropriate in the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings, where 49[1] innocent men, women and children were gunned down while simply meeting for prayer.  How often, like Jesus, we want to cry out over the state of the world – our love for it and our despair that it ignores all that makes for peace.

Jesus’ words are particularly raw and passionate in our gospel today.  He knows he is heading to the cross.  Time is running out.  And as he looks towards beautiful and broken Jerusalem, he knows it doesn’t need to be this way.  God never meant it to be this way.  You can almost hear the anguish in Jesus’ voice as he grieves over the state of the city.  How must God be grieving over Christchurch, and all other places of needless violence and pain, today?  It doesn’t need to be this way.  God never meant it to be this way…

In our Old Testament reading, we have a different sort of honest outburst.  Abram, who we later know better as Abraham, has been faithfully following God’s call to travel to the land God has promised to him.  When God appears to him again, he pours out his deepest worry: O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son?  Three chapters earlier, when God sent Abram on his quest, God promised that he would become a great nation and all the families of earth would be blessed through him.  Yet, Abram cannot see how that could ever be possible.  Can you imagine what he is thinking: I am doing everything you ask God, I am doing my best, but really nothing has changed.  Again, I wonder if you can identify with Abram: God, I am trying to be good, to love my neighbour, to make the world a fairer, kinder place, and it just seems to be getting worse.  Help God! We are praying your Kingdom come, but some days it really doesn’t look very much like your Kingdom of justice, mercy and peace around here.  We are trying to stay faithful, but we just don’t see how what you promised can be possible!

Abram waits thirteen years until God fulfils God’s promise to grant him and Sarah a son, Isaac.  When the angels tell Abraham and Sarah that she will soon give birth, Sarah is incredulous, but the angels reply “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”

Of course, nothing is too difficult for the Lord, but that does not mean things will be easy.  At this time in the Church year, we remember that it is not too difficult for God to save the world from sin and death, but it costs God dearly.  The cost is nothing less than everything – God gave Godself to us in Jesus and died for us on the cross.

Now we are called as God’s children to continue God’s work of love, redemption and peace-building in the world.  And as God is with us, it is possible, but it will not be easy.  We too must walk the way of the Cross.  We must be prepared to give up ourselves that others may experience life.

And we live in difficult times.  There are chilling echoes today of the events of early last century.  People are divided, the bullies shout loudest and politicians are leading by fear not hope.  In times like this, you have to be vigilant.

There is a famous anonymous quote about the Holocaust in which six million Jews were systematically exterminated by the Nazi regime.  It says:

Remember, it didn’t start with gas chambers. It started with politicians who divided the people “us vs. them”. It started with intolerance and hate speech. When people stopped caring, became desensitized, and turned a blind-eye, it became a slippery slope to genocide.

Us versus Them.  As Christians, we seek to obey the great commandments – to love God and to love our neighbour, when our neighbour is even our historic enemy.  We follow Jesus who called his disciples to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  There cannot be any Us versus Them for children of God, for we know that every human being is made in the divine image of God.  To be a Christian means refusing to allow anyone to make you think that another human being is not one of us, but one of them.  All humanity is our neighbour.  Every person a person for whom Jesus Christ shed his blood.  They are precious to God and to us.

So, this Lent, make it a discipline to resist the messages that tell us that sisters and brothers of a different political persuasion or religion or ethnic background are Them, something other and usually something less deserving.  What does this mean?  As a worked example, can I ask you to stand against people who speak against immigrants?

Firstly, because it is a meaningless term.  Who are immigrants?  Are they people like me – a Scot?  I kid you not, someone accused me of coming down here and taking local jobs when I started four years ago. He wasn’t joking. Or what about my husband who is a second-generation Irish immigrant?  If he isn’t an immigrant, why is a second-generation Pakistani an immigrant?  Immigrants can be the highly skilled doctor who saves your friend’s life (I worked alongside many of them in my time in the NHS) or the amazing academic who teaches and conducts groundbreaking research at a local university (like my Italian friend, who has been in the UK for over 20 years, has an English wife and two children).  Is an immigrant some of the amazing women I have met through Carriers of Hope, who have come to the UK because life is too dangerous for them in their own country and cannot work because of asylum rules.  However, they now help run a charity for other people in the same predicament?  Are immigrants the Gurkhas who fought for the British army?  Are immigrants some of the Polish mums who come to our Stay and Play group with their fabulous kids and who, with their partners, work so hard and contribute to society?  Are immigrants the care worker who tenderly looks after the elderly person from our family or congregation who needs extra help?

When we break it down like that, people sometimes say “Oh, but we don’t mean THOSE immigrants!”  But all these people – all of us – are immigrants and are affected by the anti-immigrant language which is so commonplace in Britain today.  The vast, vast majority of immigrants are a gift to our country and society (and even the ones who aren’t still deserve our respect) yet they have become the scapegoat for all our problems – the people that some politicians and some sections of the media point to whenever life is tough and they want to distract us from their part in it.  The problems aren’t us – let’s blame them.

Please, please don’t fall for it.  And even more so, don’t stand for it.  If you hear someone badmouthing immigrants, call them out.  Challenge their thinking.  What sort of immigrant are they talking about?  Have they actually met someone like the person they are complaining about or are they just talking about something they read in the news?  Speaking of which, if your newspaper or usual television programme runs articles saying that immigrants are the cause of all our problems, stop buying the newspaper or change your viewing habits.  Now I know that for some of you that will mean breaking ingrained habits, but if Jesus can die on a cross for us, we can change our reading material or switch the channel.  And better still, write and tell your newspaper or TV channel why you have stopped buying or watching it!  Don’t continue to fill your head with Us and Them thinking.

And then there are positive things we can do to end the Us and Them divide.  Be curious.  Be connected. Be creative.  Make a friend who is different to you.  Find out about their culture, politics or religion.  Share yours. Celebrate the things you offer to one another.

There is no Us and Them – only human beings for whom Jesus died.  Human beings made in the image of God, intended to be God’s gift to one another.  Don’t let anyone deprive you of that gift.  Challenging the divisive stories in society today – whether it is in the national media or down the pub or on around a dinner table – will not be easy.  But we have the example of Jesus who shows us that a painful journey can ultimately bring transformation, hope and new life.  And we have Jesus with us, through the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, loving, helping and guiding us.

Remember, it didn’t start with gas chambers. It started with politicians who divided the people “us vs. them”. It started with intolerance and hate speech. When people stopped caring, became desensitized, and turned a blind-eye, it became a slippery slope to genocide.

Keep caring. Don’t turn a blind eye. Love your neighbour even if it hurts.  Tragedies like Christchurch are not inevitable – we can all play a part in making them less likely to happen. Nothing is too difficult for God – or for God’s children with God’s help.  It  may not be easy, but we have Jesus with us, so give it your best and bravest attempt…

[1] At the time of writing.