Rev Sally Massey Thomas the Ecumenical Officer for URC Wales Synod was our guest preacher on Sunday 4th February.
During Family Time we built a wall from cardboard boxes then knocked it down to create a bridge.
Readings: Mark 1:29-39, Genesis 11.1-4, Psalm 133
This is the sermon that followed!
In January, Peter and I went to see Imperium at the Swan Theatre in Stratford.
Based on the books by Robert Harris it’s the history of ancient Rome through the eyes of Cicero, a politician known as Rome’s greatest orator. It was performed in two halves as six energetic and intense hours of theatre. We were exhausted by the end so can only imagine how the actors felt! It powerfully connected ancient history with contemporary society – nothing changes, politics, people, power has always been both used and abused. The only significant difference is that now the death of political careers is more often a result of scandal and social media rather than poison or sword. The play’s programme included an article by Mark Thompson former Director General of the BBC and now Chief Executive of the New York Times. He made the observation that in September 2015 which was during the EU referendum campaign here and when Donald Trump was campaigning he made a speech in Dallas in which he said,
“We have to build a wall, folks. We have to build a wall. All we have to do is go to Israel and say how is your wall working? Walls work.”
Any connection between the image and the reading about the Tower of Babel is entirely deliberate.
Some of you, like Peter and me, will have been to Israel and Palestine and experienced the queues to cross from Bethlehem to Jerusalem through the border gates of the wall Trump was referring to. Does it, as he claims, work?
Well, everyone has the right to live in safety and it has reduced the attacks on Israel by those very few Palestinians intent on violence. But for the vast majority of Palestinians who simply want to live in peace and get on with their lives it causes considerable hardship. Many work on the Israeli side of the wall which means facing a long queue every morning to get to work.
Being turned back and so losing pay is a regular occurrence.
Bethlehem is next to the wall yet if people there need to access hospital treatment they usually have to travel to Amaan in Jordan, a journey that takes more than four hours, even though there are hospitals in nearby Jerusalem and Tell Aviv.
Many farmers no longer have access to their land. Poverty for many Palestinians is exacerbated.
So if intentionally making lives even harder than they already were for Palestinian people is a measure of success then yes, the wall works.
I should add that this wall is the work of government and that many Jewish people are as against it as Palestinians are. In expressing solidarity with the suffering of Palestinians, which many here do, we must take care to also value Jewish friends and to support them in finding more peaceful solutions.
Acts of terrorism whether by Arab, Jew or any other nationality can never be condoned but surely there must be a way of protecting both sides of this religious and cultural divide than this wall. It is a profoundly disturbing thing to witness and the harm it causes, most would say, far outweigh any of the alleged benefits.
Construction continues and it is expected to finally stretch over 403 miles – that’s a very long wall and in some places it’s 8 meters high so, as you might imagine, Graffiti abounds. The power of images is everywhere in evidence.
This one you may recognise as taken from Michael Angelo’s fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The centre piece of his paintings about the story of creation is of God reaching out to Adam.
God’s is the hand on the right – showing strength, determination, the finger stretching out. Adam on the other hand is portrayed as not quite so keen. His hand dips down hinting at laziness maybe or lacking the same forcefulness. I don’t think it’s by chance that this painting on the separation wall puts a greater distance between God and humanity than the original –
In our country and culture we don’t build actual walls between us and others we perceive as a threat, too different from us to contemplate friendship.
We do it in more subtle ways, often not even realising it.
We build walls of prejudice, disapproval, judgement, condemnation; we thoughtlessly treat people as less than they are or should be.
Most of us value our lifestyles while failing to recognise some of our choices perpetuate a world in which too many are not free both literally and metaphorically.
And it strikes me as ironic that as we prepare to celebrate the centenary of votes for women, the BBC is exposed as failing to treat women staff equally – and they are hardly the only employers guilty of this – way to go.
The bible speaks to us of God who is passionate for justice yet our response often lacks the same vision – we do not reach for God as determinedly as God reaches to us.
On the world stage, there are many things we might like to do but can’t.
We are powerless to bring peace to Syria, to sort out South African politics, to dismantle the separation wall between Israel and Palestine, though we can and should make our views known to political leaders here.
We are not powerless to take action to tackle the injustices within our own society –
Why are food banks so necessary?
Why are the numbers of homeless sleeping rough on city streets increasing?
Why is universal credit intensifying hardship for too many?
Why do Councils feel the need to look for financial savings that put people at risk?
Why are schools, the NHS and other cornerstones of society underfunded?
Why are so many, especially older people, isolated and lonely?
Why are women still sexualised or trivialised?
It’s a long list – I’ve named but a few.
We can make our voices heard – and it seems to me that our strength to do this effectively needs many people coming together in solidarity.
No one church, faith group or organisation has the capacity to act alone. We need one another.
Our ways of worship may be different but that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, prohibit friendship, acting together, valuing one another.
Sometimes when I’m discussing greater co-operation between denominations with church leaders or in local churches with congregations I feel that our churches are at cross purposes.
The dictionary defines this as –
. . . people are at cross purposes [when] they do not understand each other because they are talking about different subjects without realising this – or as people being at odds with each other in language and / or purpose.
In the way churches often fail to connect both at structural and local level it sometimes feels like this. We use the same words but invest them with diverse meanings; we find myriad excuses as to why we cannot change. However unintentionally church structures can seem more like walls to keep others at bay rather than creative organisations that build bridges.
And then I remind myself that we are indeed at cross purposes – the purposes of the cross. Living and acting faithfully for the common good should always come first.
February is the month when we mark –
LGBTI History Month; Racial Justice Sunday whose theme this year is ‘Belonging: all are welcome; Sexual abuse and violence awareness week; Church Action on Poverty Sunday when we should listen to ‘voices from the margins’ then act
Fairtrade fortnight begins
And also Random Acts of Kindness week – and that’s something we may all put into practice everyday.
It is also, and primarily for Christians, still the season of Epiphany
a reminder that we share in making God’s presence in the world obvious and visible – not merely through words but through lifestyles and the choices we make.
Pray God we are never complicit in keeping those who would see Jesus out but rather those who strive to mirror his living.
Imperfect though we are may we, as we prayed, dare to ask, dare to believe, dare to risk that even thorough our lives together and individually people may recognise God’s presence and choose Jesus’ way of self-giving love
We continue our journey to explore, include and embrace – to be builders of bridges and dismantlers of walls.