Friday, 18 November 2016

Building a vision for the common good

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
20th November 2016 11.00am

Revelation 21.1-11, 22-26; 22.17
Jeremiah 29.1-14

Listen to this sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/simon-woodman-building-a-vision-for-the-common-good#t=6:34

The question I’d like us to hold before us this morning,
          and which I hope our engagement with scripture will shed some light on,
is the question of:
          ‘what, in the world, are we here for?’

‘What, in the world, are we here for?’

And as with all interesting and important questions,
          I think it bears a little unpacking.

Specifically, I wonder who we think is the ‘we’ here?
          Do we hear this as applying to us as a collection of individuals?
                   Perhaps asking us why we are here, at this church, this morning?
          Or do we hear it as applying to us as a congregation,
                   asking us collectively why we exist here,
                   in this building, in this city?
          Or maybe we should hear it in a wider sense than this,
                   perhaps as applicable to the church universal,
                   asking us what the point of Christian churches are in general?
          Or maybe we should hear it at an existential level,
                   applying to all of humanity,
                   asking us what, if anything, is the point of human life itself?

All of which are valid questions,
          and subsumed within them we have whole disciplines
                   of philosophy, ethics, ecclesiology, and theology.
So perhaps we might need to narrow it down,
          for our focus of enquiry this morning?

I’m going to suggest that we hear it as being directed
          primarily at the church in its universal sense
                   – why is there a church in the world? –
          and then secondarily as applying to us as a congregation.

We may need to put aside our own existential anxieties
          for another sermon on another day.

So, ‘what, in the world, are we here for?’

We’re coming to the end of our series of sermons on biblical buildings,
          which we’ve been working our way through over the last month or so.

We started with the Tower of Babel,
          and then we looked at the tabernacle,
                   then the temples of Solomon and Ezra,
          then Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple,
and in today’s sermon we come to the vision of the new Jerusalem
          from the end of the Bible.

It’s often said that the Bible starts with a vision of a garden,
          and ends with a vision of a city,
and this can be a helpful way to think of the trajectory
          that scripture take us on
with its rollercoaster journey
          from a one vision of perfection to another,
encompassing the vast sweep of human experience along the way.

But another way of thinking about the Bible
          is that it is an attempt to explore,
                   through story and history, through poetry and parable,
          what the purpose might be
                   for God having called some people to be his people.

It’s there, of course,
          in the moment of revelation given to Abraham,
                   the father of the Jewish people,
                   and the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

The covenant that God made with Abraham,
          was that his descendants would be the people of God,
          and that they would be a blessing to the whole earth.

The purpose of calling one group of humans
          into a relationship with God
has always been that the blessing will go beyond that group.

The outworking of this, then, is that any form of religion
          that seeks to keep the blessings of their relationship with God
                   to themselves and those like them
          is a betrayal of the covenant that God made with Abraham.

So, the first part of an answer
          to our question of, ‘What, in the world, are we here for?’,
surely has to be that, at the very least,
          we are here to be good news
          to those who live beyond our own community.

We are here to be good news
          to the lost, the lonely, and the least,
to be good news to those who not like us.

And here we come to my main point for this morning,
          which I’ll give away now so that we can think about it as we go through.

It’s this: I think we’re here, in this world,
          to build a vision for the common good.

Those who built the Tower of Babel
          were trying to build their way to heaven,
while those who built the tabernacle
          were trying to build a home for God on earth.

Solomon built his temple
          to keep God close to the seat of royal power,
and Ezra rebuilt it as a symbol of ethnic exclusivity.

But all these attempts to build the kingdom of God on earth ultimately failed,
          because God cannot be reached by human efforts,
          and neither can he be contained by human buildings.

The good news of the New Testament witness
          is that God is encountered on earth,
                   not through a sacred building or a tower of strength,
          but through the person of Jesus himself,
                   as he is revealed by his Spirit
                   through the people that bear his name.

And I want to suggest that if we are those people,
          then the reason we’re here
                   is not to build God a house,
                   or to build power or strength,
          but to build a vision for the common good.

We’re here to be a blessing to those who are not part of us,
          we’re here to be good news to all people.

And so we come to the fascinating vision of the church on the earth,
          which we meet in the biblical image of the New Jerusalem.

Many readers of this image take it as a vision of the future,
          something that will happen at some point far from now
                   as a mysterious celestial city bangs down from the heavens
                   and settles on the earth.
          I have to say that this approach has never seemed all that persuasive to me,
                   after all, what earthly use today is a vision of the distant future?
          I think it’s much more likely
                   that what we’ve got going on here is a metaphor,
                   a compelling picture which invites further reflection
                             as to what it might mean for us to be the church
                             in our own time and place.

So, in this way, I think that the New Jerusalem
          is one of the images that the Bible uses
          for the church in the here-and-now.
It’s a picture of the people of God on the earth.

And I think it helps us address our question
          of what, on earth, we are here for.

Bear with me for a moment on this,
          but I’d like us to think about the utility supplies in the New Jerusalem.
Specifically, the supply of light and water.

The text clearly tells us that the city has no need
          for either the natural lights of the sun and the moon,
          or for the artificial light that comes from lamps.
Rather, the glory of God is its light,
          and its lamp is the Lamb of God.
In fact, it has so much light
          that it shines brightly enough for all the nations to walk by its light.

And similarly, it seems to have a never-ending supply of fresh water,
          enough not only for its own citizens,
but to quench the thirst of anyone who wishes to come
          and take the water of life as a gift.

And this super-abundance of light and water
          is in stark contrast to all other human cities.

The city of Jerusalem itself, the one that still sits on a hill in Israel,
          actually has no natural water supply at all;
                   until very recent times, it was entirely dependent on a water tunnel
                   bringing water in from outside the city.

And the supply of light to keep city streets safe at night was,
          until the invention of electricity and gas supplies,
dependent on lamps and oil,
          as we see reflected in Jesus’ famous parable
          about the virgins and their oil lamps.

And here, considering light and water,
          we find ourselves in the world
          of the economics of the common good.

In any city, and in any society,
          there are certain things that it makes more sense to enact collectively.

The lighting of the streets is a great example,
          although the principle can be extrapolated
          across many areas of need and provision.

The thing about street lights is that
          no one street light exclusively benefits any one individual.
The system only works
          when all the lights are working
          for the benefit of all the inhabitants.

It makes no sense for someone to arrange to light
          only for the part of the pavement that they are walking along.
This, in a nutshell, is the economics of the common good.

The same is true of water supplies,
          sewage systems, public transport, and health care provision.

From the Roman aqueducts, to the National Health Service, to Obamacare,
          enlightened rulers have sought to implement policies
          for the common good.

And I think the image of the New Jerusalem
          as the city with enough light to shine across all the nations,
          and with enough water to supply the thirst of any who need it,
invites us to reflect on a vision of the church:
          in the world, for the common good.

What, in the world, are we here for?
          We’re here for the good of all;
          in fulfilment of the covenant between God and Abraham.

This is a spiritual vision,
          but it is a vision with some very practical out-workings.

All too often churches have come to see themselves
          as existing in the world for their own benefit,
with the church in effect functioning as a closed-set club,
          with admission upon request.

The purpose of such club-churches varies,
          from the basic Christian social club church,
                   to groups drawn together around a particular understanding
                             of a theological issue,
          to single-issue churches focusing on anything
                   from a specific style of music to a distinctive architectural style.

And at one level there’s nothing wrong with any of these;
          social interaction is a gift of grace,
                   theological issues do matter,
                   as do music and architecture.
But the problem with closed-set club churches
          is that they primarily exist for the benefit of their own members.
They build for themselves,
          rather than for the common good.

Many of the buildings that house churches today
          are there because churches decided to build themselves a home.
They offer somewhere for the people of God
          to come and worship their God.
We think of them as ‘our church’, where we come to meet with God,
          encountering him in the sanctuary we have built for him.

However, this is not true of all church buildings.

Think of the great Methodist Mission churches of the London suburbs,
          built to offer transformation in the poorest
                   and most deprived areas of the Victorian city;
          promoting the temperance movement
                   in the face of the evils of alcohol addiction,
          and supporting the suffragette cause for the emancipation of women.

They were built for the common good.

And I want to say, also, think of this building in which we now sit,
          built not just to house a congregation
                   who come to worship God on the Lord’s day,
          but to be a place of Baptist mission to the centre of the city,
                   strategically placed on the boundary between wealth and poverty
                   with the express intention of bringing the two together
                   in ways that transform the city for good.

We are the heirs of a vision to build for the common good,
          just as we are the spiritual descendants of Abraham
                   and his vision of the people of God in the world
                   for the blessing of all peoples.
We are called to be the new Jerusalem,
          offering light and water to the city outside those doors.

The question, of course, is what offering light and water
          might look like in our complex, technological, 24 hour city?
What does it mean for us to build a vision for the common good?
          Where is the need in our city?

What would it mean for us, as the people of God,
          to shine light into the darkest corners of London,
                   exposing the oppressive systems and practices
                   that enslave people’s souls and bodies?

What would it mean for us, as the people of God,
          to offer refreshing water to those who are being poisoned
          by the polluted atmosphere of hatred and cynicism and despair?

Here, I think, we need to hear the word of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon.

You may remember the story:
          The Babylonians invaded Jerusalem,
                   about six hundred years before the time of Jesus,
          sacked the city and destroyed the temple,
                   before carrying a swathe of the Jewish population into exile in Babylon.

It was to these exiles, far from home,
          with no buildings of their own and no temple in which to worship,
that Jeremiah wrote:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel,
          to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
5 Build houses and live in them;
          plant gardens and eat what they produce. 
6 Take wives and have sons and daughters;
          take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage,
          that they may bear sons and daughters;
                   multiply there, and do not decrease. 
7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
          and pray to the LORD on its behalf,
          for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The call of God to those in exile in Babylon
          is to seek the welfare of the city of Babylon.

In the book of Revelation, where we meet our image
          of the church as the New Jerusalem,
the name Babylon is used as a codename for the Roman empire,
          and the picture it paints is of the people of God
                   there, in the midst of the empire, for good, and for the common good.

The gates of the new Jerusalem are open,
          its light shines brightly beyond its own walls,
          and its pure water is available for all.

This is not a vision of the church battened down,
          defensively protecting itself while entering survival mode.
It is a vision of the church militant,
          in the world for the good of all,
          courageously seeking the welfare of the city.

For Babylon, read Rome, read London.

We are not here to build a temple in which we can worship our God.
          We are not here to build a tower of strength.
                   We are not here to build political power.
          We are not here to build walls around our communities.

We are here, in the world, to throw open the doors,
          to shine brightly, and to build a vision for the common good,
          to seek the welfare of the city to which we have been sent.

We’re not building a building,
          we’re building a new world.

We’re here to learn, together, to see the world differently,
          to see the world as God sees it,
and to speak and live into being
          an alternative way of being human before God
          which is light and water
                   to those whose lives are in darkness
                   and whose souls are parched.

Pope Francis has said,

“Indifference to our neighbor and to God …
          represents a real temptation for us Christians.
Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable,
          we forget about others (something God the Father never does):
we are unconcerned with their problems,
          their sufferings and the injustices they endure…
Our heart grows cold.
As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable,
          I don’t think about those less well off.
Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions,
          to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference.
It is a problem which we, as Christians, need to confront.”

We are here, on the earth, to be good news for all,
          to build a vision for the common good,
because if we don’t articulate Heaven’s perspective on the earthly situation,
          who on earth is going to do it?

So as we live in a world of growing fear,
          with the whiff of fascism in the air,
          with growing suspicion of the other,
                   and fear of the foreigner,
          with poverty and homelessness literally on our doorstep
          with mental health services in crisis
                   at the very point where they are most needed
          with social care and security facing cuts of catastrophic levels…

Maybe this is what, in the world, we’re here for.

And so we are called to look beyond ourselves,
          to take into action our conviction that in Christ every life matters,
                   and that Christ always has a bias
                   to the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.
We are called to build alliances with others,
          and to speak truth to power,
          as we hold to account those who hold power.
We are called to engage politics and charity,
          to build communities of reciprocity,
to run night shelters and day centres,
          to use our resources to see the marginalized included,
          the poor lifted up,
          and the vulnerable made strong.

We are called to build a vision for the common good,
          where the absolute love of God for each and every person
          is at the heart of all that we do.

Because it will be in and through us
                   that utopian religion finds its pragmatic reality,
          we are where dreams become real and visions get built.
We are the outpost on the earth of the new world that that is coming.
          As we live into being in our midst the reality for which we pray:
                   That the kingdom will come,
                   on earth as it is in heaven.


Sunday, 13 November 2016

Intercessions for Remembrance Sunday 2016

In the name of Jesus, we will remember
We will remember

Great God of everlasting peace and eternal justice, we live in a world where memories are short, and history is rewritten. As one generation gives way to the next, the lessons of the past are forgotten, and the spirals of violence are allowed to begin once again.

We look around us at the world we live in, and we see posturing and protectionism, we see poverty and prosperity, we see power and propaganda, but we do not see peace. All too easily our world turns to war as the solution to problems, and we forget that armed conflict is never a final solution, and that war is always counter-productive to the cause of peace.

So in our world of hatred and division we turn to you, the great eternal force of love that transcends generations, and we ask that you will help us to remember. Help us to speak truths of peace and justice in our time, as we tell your story of forgiveness - to those who have never heard it, and to those who have wilfully forgotten it.

In the name of Jesus, we will remember
We will remember

On this day of remembering, we turn to the cross: the great symbol of violence, oppression, and execution which lies at the heart of our commitment to peace. May we rediscover what it means to live lives in the light of the cross as the end of violence. May we rediscover in your story the eternal truth that all conflict ultimately ends in the victimisation and death of the innocent.

Forgive us when we are tempted to believe that ‘fighting for peace’ is anything other than a deception to justify violence. Help us to find courage to speak into being your alternative story, that the only true path to peace lies through forgiveness and reconciliation.

And in a world where death so often seems to get the final word, we ask that you will awaken us to the hope of resurrection, where death is itself defeated, and peace and justice are fulfilled. May we never forget the hope that lies at the heart of your story.

In the name of Jesus, we will remember
We will remember

So with hope set before us, and your eternal perspective behind us, we come now to pray for the transformation of our world. In a world of violence, we dare to speak our conviction that it does not have to be this way. And as we speak into being your alternative world of peace and justice, we commit ourselves to living out the truth of that conviction, until it is true in our world.

So we pray for all those who, this day, are fighting:
·    We pray for all those who will kill another human being in war because they believe that it is the right thing to do.
·    We pray for those who will kill another in war because they believe that they have no choice.
·    We pray for those who will kill another because it is the only way they know they are alive.
For all those who will kill, we pray forgiveness and mercy. May they discover in their lives the truth spoken from the cross, that forgiveness is offered even to those who kill the innocent.

‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

We pray for all those who are victims of war:
·    We pray for the civilians of Mosul and Aleppo, and for those affected by the bomb in Pakistan.
·    We pray for refugees driven from their homes to seek a new life elsewhere in Europe.
·    We pray for wounded soldiers, discharged by the country they fought for and now reliant on charity to build a new life.
For all those who have been victimised by war, may they discover in their lives the solidarity of the cross, and may they come to know the path to resurrection that lies through death.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

We pray for politicians and power-brokers, for peace-makers and peace-keepers. We pray for prime ministers and presidents; may they remember all those who they have been elected to represent. May they remember the lessons of the past, and the price paid by so many in the service of ideologies of violence. May they come to the conviction that it doesn’t have to be this way.

And finally we pray for ourselves. May we learn what it means to live in peace. May we model in our own lives your way of forgiveness and reconciliation. From the way we are with our loved ones, to the way are at work, to the way we vote; may we always live in peace. Not for our sake, or for the sake of others, but for your sake, as we remember the cross, and live its truth into being in our world.

In the name of Jesus, we will remember
We will remember


Sunday, 6 November 2016

'I Want My Country Back!'

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
6th November 2016 11.00am

Biblical Buildings Series: The second temple
Ezra 1.1-7; 4.1-5; 6.14-16
Ezra 9.1-3, 12; 10.1-4, 9-12, 44; Revelation 11.15-17
  
‘I want my country back’
          has become something of a rallying cry in recent years.

From Scotland to Brexit to Trump,
          the desire for land,
                   to have and to hold, till death us do part,
          is firmly back in vogue,
                   although I suspect it has never really gone away.

From Islamic State to the Englishman whose home is his castle,
          from Palestine to the Ukraine,
the idea that this particular patch on the surface of God’s green earth
          should belong to me and mine
is a compelling narrative that drives everything from war and terrorism,
          to oppressive dictatorships, to the capitalist system.

The idea that land ownership can be defined
          within a hierarchical system of tenure
          which ascends from the individual, via the family and tribe, to the homeland,
is fundamental to our understanding of the post-feudal nation state,
          and you only have to look at the hell that breaks loose
                   wherever people are required to live across borders
                   that are not of their choosing
          to see how wedded our human societies are
                   to the land that we live on,
                   the land which gives us life.

And the thing about land ownership
          is that it is always a multi-generational issue.
You don’t change these things overnight,
          because there is always an ideology at play
          behind whichever individual or family or corporation
          has actually got their name on the title deed.

So, for example,
          whilst it may be perfectly acceptable
                   for a member of the English landed gentry,
                             say, the duke of Westminster,
                   to own most of the land on which the better parts of London are built,
          it is deemed less acceptable
                   for foreign investors to buy up large tracts of prime real estate
                             with a view to long term profit
                             from what is often referred to as ‘our land’.

And so we come to slogans such as,
          ‘I want my country back’.
And the question of whether such a sentiment, however heartfelt,
          can ever be enacted in any meaningful way.

The thing is, many of today's most divisive political issues
                    revolve around land ownership,
          and have their roots firmly in the past.
So if you want to understand Brexit, or Trump,
          or Scottish Nationalism, or ISIS,
                   or the Palestinian problem,
then you have to go back a very long way
          into the history of why we are where we are,
          and why certain people feel so entitled to their territorial assertions.

People may forget the details, but the grudges remain,
          and the sense of prerogative for ‘my nation’,
coupled with the sense of fear and frustration
          when it feels as if someone is taking ‘my country’ away from me,
lies behind much of our experience of the world.

It's not all about skin colour, of course,
          although that can be one of the most enduring
          and vicious forms of segregation.

It's more usually about land (who owns it),
          money (who has it), and power (who wields it),
and these are multigenerational issues
          which echo down through civilisations,
creating the context within which each rising generation
          stakes their own claim on the world.

In all of this, who your parents are
          continues to matter very much indeed.
If they were blue-collar steel or textile workers in the Deep South,
          who saw their jobs disappear during the twentieth century
          because of overseas manufacturing, and immigrant labour markets,
                   then you will probably be voting for Donald Trump
                   in the hope that he will make your country great again.

The irony here, of course, is that Trump is hardly the personification
          of the defender of the working man.
If anything, he's the exact opposite,
          he’s the landowner who represents
          the vested interests and entrenched power of inherited wealth.
But he is, at least, an American landowner.
          And like the Grosvenor Estates here in London,
                   British born and bred,
Trump represents an embodiment of the all-American dream,
          which is compelling to those who desire an opportunity for a better life,
                    and are frustrated because they feel
                   as if someone else is taking it from them.

What we call neoliberalism,
          the free market economic model that has prevailed in the Western world
                   primarily since the second world war,
          has, it seems to me, largely failed in its aim of reducing social inequality
                   and controlling the monopolisation of production
                   through competition and reduced regulation.

And I want to suggest that this is because
          it was just the latest manifestation
                   of an ancient story of control
          based on land, money, and power.

The rhetoric of the free market simply created a situation
          within which the rich have remained rich,
                   and where land has remained centralised into the ownership
                   of those who inherited the power to assert their rights over it.

And this is where I want us to turn, for a few minutes,
          to the story of Ezra, and the rebuilding of the temple.
Because I think this ancient story, from a land far away,
          helps us to unmask the deep systems of domination in human society
          that continue to make their presence felt in our own world.

So, firstly, a bit of the back story.

You may remember that last week,
          I was speaking about the building of the temple by Solomon,
as a religious symbol of the political unification of the land of Israel,
          that had occurred during the reign of his father David.

That story tells us that King David had succeeded
          where all other Jewish rulers before him had failed,
by uniting the disparate tribes of the Jewish people
          into one nation, with one King, and one border.

In many ways, David was for the Jews,
          what King Arthur is for the English,
a mythical figure of old who sets the ideology of the nation,
          and defines for future generation what it means to be part of this people.

Well, Solomon’s temple was part of that narrative,
          and it cemented the relationship between the house of David,
          and the so-called God of Israel.

However, David’s political union of the land didn’t last,
          and it was already starting to fragment by the time of Solomon,
          hence his grand building project to unite the people.

However, after about 250 years,
          the Assyrians conquered the northern part of the land of Israel (740BCE),
and then a century and a bit after that, the Babylonians conquered the south,
          destroyed Solomon’s temple,
          and carried the king and the ruling elite off to exile in Babylon. (587BCE)

The Babylonian exile lasted for about fifty years
          before the political situation shifted in Babylon,
with the great city itself falling to the Persian king Cyrus,
          who, it turned out, had a different policy
          with regard to exiled and displaced peoples.

Whereas the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar
          had believed that the way to control a conquered nation
                    was to take the elite into captivity,
          and to put his own rulers in place
                   to extract tribute and taxes from the local population,
Cyrus pursued a policy of letting people be ruled by their own leaders,
          worshipping their own gods,
and as long as they paid their taxes to him,
          he was happy enough to live and let live.

And so Cyrus decreed that the Israelites in exile in Babylon
          should be allowed to return back to the land of Israel,
and he encouraged them to rebuild their temple,
          and resume the worship of their God in Jerusalem.

And this is where our reading today from the book of Ezra
          picks up the story.

It’s a book that is written firmly from the perspective of Judah,
          the southern kingdom of the Jews which had Jerusalem as its capital city,
and it is clearly written to justify their ownership of the land.

This is history being written by the victors,
          who are telling the story of how they got here
          to in such a way as to legitimate their situation.

So the returning Jews rebuilt their temple,
          and assumed power in the land,
and Ezra is their story of how they did it.

But there are enough glimpses in this story of the darkness of that time
          for us to recover from it what a terrible price had to be paid
          for this ideology of land ownership to reassert itself.

The thing is, those returning to the land
          were not the same people as those who had left it.
We’re talking two generations later, here.
          And in the same way that the New York Irish are more Irish than the Irish,
                   so the Jews returning from Babylon were more Jewish,
                             by a certain definition of Jewishness,
                    than those who had remained behind in the land.

You see, the Jews in exile had been busy
          constructing a national and religious identity for themselves.
Many of the books of the Bible that make up
          what we might call the Jewish history
          were actually written by the Jews in exile in Babylon.

From the creation stories of Genesis
          being clearly re-written versions of the Babylonian creation myths,
to the stories of the rise of the nation of Israel under the judges
          and the political unity achieved by King David and his successors;
these are stories written to create and sustain
          a specific vision of national belonging
                    in a time when the land itself wass under occupation
                    and the people were in exile.

We may never know what historical echoes lie behind these stories,
          but it was these narratives of identity that came to be true
          for the Jews who returned from exile.

Did King David ever actually exist? Who knows?
          Quite possibly he didn’t.
But that doesn’t matter, because the stories about him
          defined a nation and a culture,
in much the same way that the stories about Arthur
          came to define what it meant to be English
          in our own time of imperial dominance.

So those returning to the land did so
                   with a vision before them of national purity,
          a vision of what it would mean to worship their God in their temple,
                   with their king on the throne.

They were getting their country back!

And it was Ezra’s job to make that happen,
          he was the leader tasked with delivering on the decision
                   to return the exiles to the land they believed was theirs,
          and I can almost hear him assuring the returners,
                   that ‘return means return’.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the implications of the decision to return
          had been fully thought through in advance.
Some of this was going to have to be worked out on the hoof, so to speak;
          such as the thorny issue of those already living in the land
          who might also have thought that they too had a claim to the land they lived in,
                   and indeed, a claim on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The land that Ezra and the returnees came back to was not empty,
          it was inhabited by the descendants of those
          who had been left on the land by the Babylonians.

But when these locals asked if they could join in the fun,
          saying that they had been faithfully worshipping God,
                   through all the years of Babylonian invasion,
          and that they would like to help with the rebuilding of temple,
they are dismissed as ‘adversaries’,
          and made into enemies.

And so the ethnic segregation begins,
          and two groups of people, with two different cultures,
          both felt they had a claim to the same piece of land.
Let’s call them Palestinians and Israelis, for the sake of argument.

But Ezra’s vision of radical ethnic purity doesn’t end there,
          and we meet in the book that bears his name
          the heartbreaking story of the fate of those among the returners
                   who had married local women and had children.

Clearly, during the exile, the pressure to not marry out of the Jewish clan,
          had been crucial to their ability to remain distinctive.

Much as some immigrant groups in our own country
          might frown upon those who might marry out of their own ethnic group.

But once they had returned to the land at the end of their exile,
          clearly some of the men had decided
                   that their cousins who had remained in the land
                   were more relative than stranger,
          and had married and had children.

This would be like, fifty year from now,
          the Syrian refugees to Europe finally being able to return to a rebuilt Aleppo.
Or diaspora Jews in the 1950s being encouraged
          to return to their newly recreated homeland.

It’s the same story, told over and over again,
          as people are displaced, and people return.

It’s the story of ethnic segregation,
          of the dream of racial purity,
          of the challenges of multiculturalism.

And Ezra’s answer is clear:
          the women and children must be sent away.

It’s horrific, it’s barbaric, it’s xenophobic,
          and it’s where this story ends.

The vision of God that we see here,
          is a God who dwells in the temple in Jerusalem
          desiring to be worshipped by an ethnically purified people.

It’s a problematic story,
          and we might wonder why it’s there in our scriptures at all?

From the point of view of the author of the book,
          the sending away of the women and children is a good thing,
          it’s a sign of the piety of Ezra
                   that he prioritised the purity of God’s people
                   even at the cost of great suffering.

But this is not the God that I recognise as revealed in Jesus Christ.
          And I refuse to worship a racist, vindictive God.

But I think the value of this story,
          as with so many of the deeply troubling stories
          that we meet elsewhere in the Old Testament,
is that it bears terrifying testimony to where unflinching adherence
          to the fusion of that nationalism with religion,
          can take human beings.

This is the ideology of the terrorist,
          it is the ideology of the crusader,
          it is the ideology of Christendom.

And, thank God, there is another story in scripture
          which offers an alternative vision of what it means to be human,
a vision which allows us to step away from

Our call to worship began with a quote from Psalm 24,
          ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it’

It is not mine, it is not yours, it belongs to God.

I was standing outside the Royal Exchange recently,
          here in London,
and my eyes were directed to the sculpture which stands
          at the centre of the front façade facing Bank Station



Here it is in a little more detail:




And in our reading from the book of Revelation,
          we catch a glimpse of heaven’s perspective
          on the kingdoms and nations of the world,
as the loud voices in heaven cry:
          ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom
          of our Lord and of his Messiah’.

Not in some future tense – but very much in the present tense:

          The earth IS the Lord’s, and all that is in it

          ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom
          of our Lord and of his Messiah’.

So, what do we say to the ideology
          which leads people to cry, ‘I want my country back’?

I think we say this:
          It was never yours in the first place.

The book of Genesis,
          one of the texts written by the exiled Jews in Babylon,
          and brought back with the returners to the land,
offers a perspective on the earth
          where humans dwell there as stewards of creation.

The significance of the Genesis creation stories
          is not that they offer a competing narrative
          which contradicts the insights of contemporary science,

but that they offer a competing narrative
          which contradicts the localised, nationalistic view of God
                   that drove Ezra and his contemporaries
          to rebuild the temple and drive away the foreigners.

We need to decide which God we will worship here,
          and it is a decision with significant consequences.

Ezra made his choice,
          and the people of that region
          have been living with the consequences ever since.

Just this morning, I read a news report from the occupied West Bank
          near Bethlehem in the land of Judah.[1]

The rocky terraces of the Cremisan Valley are mostly overgrown and wild these days, as local landowners say they have lost all hope of keeping control over the more than 300 hectares of olive trees and orchards along the sloping mount, confiscated by the Israeli government earlier this year.

"I haven't been here at all this year. Look how the weeds have grown over, and trash from the street has piled up," Ricardo Jaweejat said, motioning towards the vast olive grove that has belonged to his family for generations.

"What's the point? When we learned the Israelis were taking the land, I avoided doing anything with it. It's a little bit dangerous to be here now."

Beit Jala olives are known by Palestinians around the world for producing the finest olive oil, and the oil from the city's Cremisan Valley is considered to be the best of Beit Jala, a district of the Bethlehem municipality in the southern occupied West Bank. This year is expected to be the last chance to harvest olives from the valley, which will soon be blocked off by an extension of Israel's separation wall.

While the Israeli government alleges that the separation wall's route was planned with security in mind, Palestinian residents in the area are convinced that the route was designed to allow for the illegal settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo to be connected via the Cremisan Valley.

In July, the Israeli government approved planning initiatives for 770 new settler units to be built across from the valley, on land from the nearby Palestinian village of al-Walaja, in order to expand the Gilo settlement.

"That settlement will keep expanding until it takes up all the land from Gilo to Har Gilo. This wall has nothing to do with security - it's simply a land grab," Jaweejat said, pointing out that the Cremisan Valley is one of the few places left where residents of the bustling city can be around nature.


The terrible irony of Ezra’s situation
          was that the very people who had just been released
                   from their own displacement
          so quickly themselves became the agents
                   of the displacement of others.

And that too is a story that echoes down the centuries,
          and speaks directly to our own global situation.

So what God will we choose to worship?
          And what difference will it make to the way we live on this earth?

What if we live out the conviction that all that we hold, we hold in trust for God?
          Not for our children, or for our nation, but for God?

What if we live in such a way as to be accountable to a different authority,
          and resist the free market forces
          which constrain us to act for prudence and profit?

What if we discover in our midst ways of living generously,
          exercising hospitality, with our homes and our land and our decisions?

What if we live to subvert the notion that we are a Christian nation,
          because the God we worship is the God of the whole earth,
          not just our patch of it?

What if we live out the calling to advocate
          for those who have lost their homes?

What if we speak out in welcome
          for those who are displaced from their land?

What if we seek to understand and live out before God,
          the implications of asserting that this is not ‘our country’,
                   and this is not ‘our land’?

I do not want my country back.

Because:

"The earth is the Lord’s
          and all the fullness thereof."







[1] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/palestinians-mourn-final-cremisan-valley-olive-harvest-161031094433899.html