Sermon notes for Christian Aid Week 2014 Sunday 11 May

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Sermon notes for Christian Aid Week 2014
Sunday 11 May
Prisoners of hope
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Christian hope springs from the resurrection. It offers possibilities of
transformation – from hurt to healing, from fear to trust. The spirituality of
hope inspires the communities highlighted this Christian Aid Week.
Journalist David Frost once interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressing him with the words:
‘I always think of you as an optimist.’ To which Desmond replied, ‘I'm not an optimist, I'm a prisoner
of hope.’ Optimism is a flimsy feeling upon which to build a transformed life but Christian hope is
rooted in the infinite possibilities for transforming hurt into healing and fear into trust that spring
forth from the resurrection. In 2014, Christian Aid is highlighting the ways in which partners across
the globe have undertaken journeys that have led their communities out of fear and into hope. And
if, as Jesuit Catholic Priest Jon Sobrino says, spirituality is our profoundest motivation, then at the
heart of different communities that stretch from Colombia to Iraq and to South Sudan is a
spirituality that inspires them to hope and compels them into ambitious adventures for peace and
reconciliation.
The greatest challenge in South Sudan is making peace and living in
reconciliation. Here, faith sustains hope.
Ever since the peace accord of 2005, around 2 million south Sudanese people living in exile from
civil war have begun returning home. The numbers of returnees have intensified since 2011 when
South Sudan gained independence and became the world’s youngest nation. Those returning
speak of precarious journeys home, fraught with ambushes, looting, violence and rape: stories of
fear from people who for all that have still travelled in hope. But their new home is a fledgling
country whose transformation is regularly disrupted by inter-communal violence, rebellion by militia
groups and localised conflicts over land and natural resources. Making peace and living in
reconciliation remains a critical challenge for these people.
In Apada, South Sudan, returnees were provided with land by the government but little else. There
was one borehole, but no housing, schools or clinics. With no tools, people here used their hands
to build temporary shelters and sold what little goods they had to feed their families. One of
Christian Aid’s partners in Apada is Hope Agency for Relief and Development (HARD). HARD
provided the returnees with hope in the shape of temporary shelters, blankets, water containers,
mosquito nets and other essentials. In the longer-term, HARD is providing finance for shelters that
will withstand the rains and cash grants to initiate businesses. In turn, people are hiring labourers
and buying goods from host community shops, and people like returned Teresa Wel Ater see their
long held hopes begin to take a concrete form. Yet while HARD has helped give Teresa and fellow
returnees a safe and secure home, Teresa's contribution to the community has been equally
important – she opened a church because she knew that it was faith that sustained her hopes in
the toughest times. She says: ‘A church is important for a community. When I returned, I opened
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up this church. It is full of people. We sing, we pray and we support each other. Everybody is
welcome.’
It is here, through church and in shared faith, that Christian Aid supporters in the UK hold in
common. Here, in worship we share the same scriptures and in solidarity can support one another,
for we are prisoners of the same hope.
Imprisoned to the hope of Christ, in the power of the resurrection, we can say
no to the cycle of violence, to action and reaction.
But we often baulk at the New Testament’s imagery of being in chains to Christ and the slavery
passage in 1 Peter is perhaps one of the most difficult. To be instructed by scripture to submit to
those in authority over us when they are unjust, for slaves to be told to obey masters who are
harsh seems to celebrate passivity in the face of violence and even perhaps to condone colluding
in repeating patterns of injustice. There are other biblical passages that offer different perspectives
and inspire us to actively oppose inequity, and rightly we would obey them, but this passage offers
us a different sign of hope. Here, Peter writes that whoever may have physical power over us, for
those imprisoned to the hope of Christ, we have it within our own resources to end the cycles of titfor-tat action and reaction that so beleaguers the human condition. In the power of the resurrection
we can say that any injustice will stop with us. As Nelson Mandela often reflected, those in chains
to Christ can know more freedom than their physical oppressors for nothing can rob the prisoner of
such hope or joy. So we are encouraged to entrust ourselves and any desire for revenge to God
who alone can and will judge justly.
For those in South Sudan, in the face of violence and poverty, this is undoubtedly a difficult
challenge but to live any other way is like a sheep that has gone astray. To live amidst the myth
that any violent response might be redemptive for a community or constructive in building a nation
is to misunderstand the gospel and ignore the leading of the shepherd of hope. And there is surely
as much truth and as deep a challenge in that for Christian Aid supporters in the UK and Ireland as
there is for our partners in South Sudan and around the world.
Our enemies cannot stop us from trusting and following the shepherd, even
through the valleys of death, into transformed lives. For the good shepherd
leads us through fear and into hope. The costs may be great; the joys will
be greater.
And these are emotions and struggles that were familiar with those for whom Psalm 23 was written
and not least because of the pastoral echoes from 1 Peter of the shepherd and his flock. The
Jews, like the southern Sudanese, were a returning people: this is a Psalm of restoration, but one
which acknowledges that our enemies are still present in our midst, around the table of the world’s
resources that God prepares for us. These are enemies shared by people of peace all around the
world. These adversaries (be they local militia or transnational corporations) would rob us of hope
and destroy the unfolding purposes of heaven’s peace and justice on the earth. If in their presence
we are to follow in paths of righteousness, journey from fear to hope, then it will not be simply
because God offers us respite moments beside still waters, but because we dared to follow the
shepherd through valleys of death. It will be because the shepherd’s rod and staff has delivered us
from evil and led us into lives of goodness and mercy.
It is that same imagery of movement that shapes the gospel passage. Again delivering us from
romantic notions of the shepherd’s vocation, John reminds us that if we would experience the
fullness of life it will require us to trust in the good shepherd who will lead the flock. Trust will be
necessary because danger will of course be present. What is evident here is an inevitable
acceptance that on its journey the flock will again encounter people of greed and violence, thieves
and robbers. Once more it is clear that if we are to be neither victims nor perpetuators of such
repeating patterns of behaviour then we must flee the voices of false shepherds and familiarise
ourselves with the repeated call of the one who shepherds us out of fear and into hope. This
moves us into a transformation that only happens through a habitual commitment to be makers of
peace and seekers of reconciliation. That costly discipleship happens most often at the micro and
local level but it will be inspired by and inspiring to participate in the macro and global levels too,
for these arenas are forever inextricably related and many partners and supporters of Christian Aid
will bear the scars and joys of both.
Fullness of life must be for all, not just for some. Peace cannot simply be for
the powerful and wealthy. There is no way to peace; peace is the way.
But in bearing the costs we are standing in a long tradition of Christian community. Those first
disciples in the book of Acts sold what they had so that none among them would be in need. It is
tempting for those who have much, to care only for our own piece of the world and to protect it
from all harm. It is understandable too for we fear to lose what has often been hard won. But the
gospel call for life in all its fullness must be for all or it can surely be for none. Peace cannot simply
be for those with the resources to protect themselves. Peace for some but not for all can never be
real peace for it is not a peace with a foundation deep in justice.
In the middle of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, founding member of the Confessing Church,
challenged the churches of the world to dare the great adventure that would be to work for peace
and reconciliation. His words seem as pertinent today as then. He asked:
How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment
of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or
through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these,
for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to
peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never
be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. It means to give oneself altogether to the law of
God, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the
hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes.
It is as prisoners to such hopes for peace that Christians and non-Christians in South Sudan
are working every day. It is as prisoners to such hopes for peace that Christian Aid partner
HARD is living out each day. And it is as prisoners to such hopes for peace that Christian Aid
supporters can act in solidarity this Christian Aid Week.
The situation in South Sudan has been deteriorating since Dec 2013, with outbreaks of
violent conflict displacing over 1 million people from their homes. For the latest information
on the situation, and how Christian Aid’s partners are responding, please visit
christianaid.org.uk/emergencies/areas-of-concern/crisis-in-south-sudan.aspx
Sermon notes for Christian Aid 2014
Sunday 18 May
Witnesses to hope
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
Confronting the reality of evil and the brutality of conflict
Sometimes we can become immune to the horrors of evil. The gospel passage today is part of
Jesus’ farewell discourse, as he anticipates the death he will suffer. The story of his crucifixion, and
to a lesser extent, that of the stoning of Stephen are so familiar to some of us that they lose their
horror. And yet they are both stories of almost unthinkable violence and cruelty. Crucifixion was a
slow, torturous and barbaric death. And stoning someone to death isn’t easy, especially a young
and healthy man like Stephen.1 This sort of cruelty takes effort; it is an act of will.
The same is true today. Sometimes the atrocities of violence in the world start to seem
commonplace: news stories lose their edge; we pray for peace and reconciliation without stopping
to consider the sheer brutality of conflict. The prayers of the psalmist have power for us because
they speak directly of the extremities of human experience that sometimes we lose: this is echoed
in the prayers we see from some of the individuals whose stories are told this past Christian Aid
Week.
These stories are ones of extreme violence and suffering. Of families like that of Margaret Nanjok
Deng, forced to hide in the bush from military ambush as they tried to return to her home in South
Sudan after fleeing to northern Sudan during the conflict. Margaret sold her house and returned to
South Sudan with her family in the hope of finding a peaceful new home. The convoy she was
travelling in was ambushed. They were shot at and had to hide in the bush for 12 days, drinking
only stagnant water, seeing terrible things.
Colombian communities scarred by the sight of bodies floating down the river and subject to the
fear of being forcibly displaced from their land. These are the realities of conflict.
But there are also many untold stories of hope in the midst of conflict. They
interrupt the cycles of violence. They speak of different possibilities. These
are the stories we bear witness to this Christian Aid Week.
We rarely hear of the realities of good work being done in places of conflict. Of south Sudanese
communities praying and supporting one another as they return home through fear of attack even
after the atrocities of war, people like Malith Malith Kak helping 800 fellow returnees navigate safe
passage from north Sudan. Malith, a sub-chief of the Apada community, led the large group of
returnees across the border from the north back to their southern homelands, guided by his
relationship with a chief in Khartoum, who showed him a safe passage. ‘The people thanked me’,
he said.
Stories of inspirational leaders like Father Alberto Franco in Colombia, helping create humanitarian
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CHY 6998 Company no. 426928 The Christian Aid name and logo are trademarks of Christian Aid. © Christian Aid December 2013 14-804-J1983
zones where displaced families can once again gather and feel protected from further
displacement.
Father Alberto is a redemptorist missionary priest, and executive secretary of our partner InterChurch Commission for Justice and Peace (CIJP). The CIJP was instrumental in setting up the
humanitarian zones – areas where displaced families now feel protected. Father Alberto has been
threatened for defending the rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities affected by the
conflict. He will continue to devote his life to speak out about the atrocities committed against them.
The stories from Christian Aid Week interrupt the horrific cycles of violence we have perhaps
become overfamiliar with and instead, we see over and over again people and communities
choosing to build a future of hope, free from fear.
The story of Jesus tells us that all the hatred and fear and conflict in the world do not have the last
word. In Jesus we see an end to the cycles of violence that put him to death. He does not retaliate
to the hatred he encounters by perpetuating it. Instead he absorbs it, and offers peace and
forgiveness.
The miracle of living peaceably, and the true cost of ending the violence
This is entirely counter to human nature. In the gospel reading (John 14:12), Jesus speaks of the
works that he does and the even greater works that will follow by those who believe in his way.
Sometimes when we look for miracles, for great works that demonstrate Christ’s life and presence,
we look for something very dramatic. And yet choosing to live peaceably, to put an end to violence
is both great and incredible.
Jesus is a peacemaker. Although he warns of troubles ahead (John 14:1), he speaks peace and
reassurance. And Jesus created peace by giving up his life. This is not a glib or easy peace, but it
is a peace that truly comes from God. And even in our world that is so full of conflict, peace can
exist. Violence does not have to have the final word.
John’s gospel is the gospel of incarnation. Jesus embodies a life fully centred on God. In him we
see a way of true holiness: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6). But all of us are
called to holiness (1 Peter 2:9); this is what we are created for. We are all formed into a royal
priesthood to act as a bridge between God, the church and the world.
It’s never just ‘Jesus and me’, it’s always ‘Jesus and us’. And from the ‘us’,
we can be inspired by people who live freely and hopefully in the midst of
conflict.
This means that the story of Jesus and the story of the cross can never be an individualistic one
about Jesus and me, but must always relate outwards. And it also means that the cross can never
be a means of oppression. Living the way of Jesus is living a path of transformation, of becoming
holy, and knowing our dignity as God’s own people to empower us to new ways of being and
acting in the world. This will not happen if cycles of victimhood and violence are continued.
God longs to make us holy. God longs for us to grow into new ways of being and relating, as
embodied in the way of Jesus. As a start for how to do this, we might take inspiration from some of
the models of holiness we see in the stories of courage and hope we see in the individuals from
South Sudan, Iraq and Colombia.
The situation in South Sudan has been deteriorating since Dec 2013, with outbreaks of
violent conflict displacing over 1 million people from their homes. For the latest information
on the situation, and how Christian Aid’s partners are responding, please visit
christianaid.org.uk/emergencies/areas-of-concern/crisis-in-south-sudan.aspx
1 http://m.frederickbuechner.com/content/peculiar-treasures-page-172
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