Sermon preached on the Middle East Crisis by the Rector on 30th July 2006.
Text: St. John chapter 6: part of verses 5 and 6

‘Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”  This he said to test him’.

Having witnessed through today’s Gospel, the testing of Philip, which we shall come to in a moment, I wonder how we see Christ testing us?  We would certainly see a testing purely between right and wrong, such as the situation in which King David failed from our Old Testament reading today (2nd Samuel chapter 11); but how about testing whether or not we can achieve something in faith, which may well have an element of risk involved, and probably where the solution itself is far from obvious.  All of these factors are part of Philip’s testing by Jesus before a hungry crowd at the Sea of Galilee.  Could he see the solution to a problem facing a large number of people and be part of that solution himself? Now I want to try and apply this kind testing by God to our lives; this quality of discernment and willingness to act, in reference to our Lord’s actions at the Sea of Galilee as recorded in today’s Gospel, and more topically in relation to what is happening in the Middle East at the moment. 

It is so hard to comment on events in Israel, the Lebanon or even Iraq without feeling that one is blundering through a political and religious web that is too complex to unravel.  One fears commenting from what may appear as a position of strength, as a mountain-top observer, untouched by the effects of the conflict and with an unemotional distance from the issues.  In other words, that our judgement can be qualified with more than a touch of arrogance and simplification, as we have accused many a poorly informed outside commentator on affairs in this Province.  First of all we have to try and see ourselves on the ground with warplanes screeching overhead or rockets falling without warning in our streets; neighbours, friends, family killed, injured and made homeless around us.  So let us begin not with the superior view that comes with being a world power in alliance with the United States of America, but with the humility to engage with the people and place on this earth that has been the cradle of the faith we profess and the two other great faiths of the children of Abraham and with ordinary people, like ourselves who are concerned about jobs and where the children are playing and where the next the next meal is coming from, those ordinary things that don’t affect international politics, but just happen to be how most people live.  We judge then not on the basis of what people in powerful positions can get away with, whether that is to indiscriminately pound rockets into Israeli towns or cities or shell fleeing Lebonese refugees, already forced from their homes, or bomb a U.N. observation post.  Just to mention these things in the quiet of this Church will stir our minds, I know, because none of us surely are unconcerned about what is happening, but the differences of our opinions and sympathies will be quickly revealed as your reactions are triggered by my words.  Our Prime Minister would say straight away, that I must immediately draw a distinction between the actions of a legitimate democratic Government defending itself and its people, and the actions of a terrorist organisation, and no doubt he is right to do that, but when that legitimate Government is killing significantly more innocent civilians than the terrorist organisation that it is trying to root out, I have to ask myself the question that many others are asking themselves, namely, “are these tactics right?”  How can I even mention acts of aggression and remain coolly objective, to comment at all risks being pejorative, even as one seeks from the news we have, to find the truth? 

We have experienced all of this throughout the troubles in this land, and so we are criticised either as being so politically correct that we blandly say nothing, or we bear the accusation of bias.  So it is with this awful conflict in the Lebanon.  And so we must move, at least in the short term, from the rights and wrongs of the situation and, do what our country should have done at the beginning of this war and, demand an immediate cessation of violence and build a bridgehead of dialogue quickly.  And yet what have we seen? People on both sides acting on the basis of “what we can get away with”, and “while we can get away with it”, and so the innocent suffer at the mercy of the indiscriminate, the strong and those who act like cornered animals. 

How dramatically Jesus stands in contrast to all of this!  And he leads us so carefully, knowing what he himself would do.  In the incident of our reading from the Gospels he tests Philip before carrying out the miracle that he is about to perform?  Why does he test him?  He tests him to teach him!  We are tested every day, and thank goodness we are. Jesus said, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”, in other words he is asking “How can we meet the immediate needs of these people”.  We have not asked them to come, but we have a moral responsibility to feed them, “How are we going to meet their immediate needs?”  That is the question that the leaders of the nations including the Lebanon and Israel, with the United Nations, the United States of America, Syria, Iran and our own Government should answer about the civilians who are caught up in this disaster, “How can we meet the immediate needs of these people?”  That matter is more pressing than any other consideration.  First there must be a ceasefire, then there needs to be a well-co-ordinated programme of help; to have put off diplomatic efforts whilst the pounding of artillery and rockets is simply allowed to continue unabated for more than two weeks has demonstrated an apparently cynical disregard for innocent life that is staggering, when the International Community could have applied pressure to stop it much earlier.  No one denies the threat of terrorism, no one denies feelings of insecurity, but what the democratic nations of the world must not do is to act as though the rooting out of terrorism justifies any action, for such is not a Christian response.  On any occasion in this island when any member of the security forces has crossed that line the consequent investigation has been seen to be vitally important.  We also know that attempts to crush terrorism by force, rather than through intelligence and negotiation, may damage and even substantially limit an organisation in the short term, but at the potential cost of assisting its recruitment for the future.

Some people who are sitting in this Church this morning, only just before Easter, visited much of Northern Israel, we went to Acco, an ancient Crusader city on a beautiful warm sunny day, we drove through the outskirts of Haifa, spent much of another day in Nazareth, stayed three nights in Tiberias overlooking the Sea of Galilee. All of these towns and cities have been hit by Hezbollah rockets and people have been killed and property destroyed.  We travelled right to the Golan Heights and saw the fence separating Israel from The Lebanon and have seen beautiful, peaceful hillside villages in parts of Israel no doubt very like those of southern Lebanon that have been pounded to dust by Israeli bombs.  What must it be like now?  How widely these situations are repeated in different areas of the world.

Time and again, I feel that Jesus is asking us what he asked Philip,  “How are we to buy bread that these people may eat?” or more specifically to this situation, “How are we to fulfil their immediate needs?”  “How can the innocent and the vulnerable be helped?” , “How can those who have been crying out for help anyway be saved from further suffering?”  Then St John comments “This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do?”  But Jesus really didn’t do very much did he, other than encourage his little band of friends to do the right thing; the disciples organised the people, collected the food and distributed it and gathered up the fragments that remained – let us not forget that the disciples ministered to the needy.  Jesus simply blessed the food and distributed it, worked his miracle through the actions of others.  He gave his guidance, but expected his followers to do what he would do in their situation. Some people have suggested that the feeding of the five thousand came about because the boy came forward with his loaves and fishes, and offered what he had to share with others, thus touching the hearts of other people in the crowd who also had food, but had it hidden in case it was taken from them.  Whether the multiplication of the food came about by human generosity or divine miracle really doesn’t matter, the miracle happened anyway, and what came out of it was a message that we are still trying to learn today.   That if we attempt simply to serve our own interests the strong and wealthy will live and the poor and helpless will die.  What today’s terrorist tries to do, is to break that inevitable outcome by any means possible, no matter what the cost, and what western democracies seem to be answering since the September 11th terrorist attacks is, “we will not allow you to do this, no matter what the cost.”  It is that “no matter what the cost”, that troubles many people, not only because in the long term it may be counter productive, but it runs counter to the Christian theological principles of the “Just War”; two of the principles being, that it should be a last resort after every other effort to solve the situation has failed, and that if reluctantly we must enter this war in the protection of freedom and justice that it be carried out with the minimum amount of force. 

Will humanity never learn that we do get our own way by killing others, we just become brutalised, even if we think we can get away with it.  There may be just wars, and there are certainly great acts of bravery and self-sacrifice as people seek to protect the weak and the freedoms of those whose lives are under threat, but it should be the last resort after all else has failed, and use the minimum of force.  We live in dangerous times and the Christian principles that we espouse must not be lost in our reaction and response to world affairs.  The International Community is being significantly tested as to how free and democratic peoples should act under threat, we need to take more care of those who can take no action themselves because they are too weak and vulnerable, yes the terrorist can hide in their midst, but most of them can do no more about that then we can.  We as a free nation are being tested, being questioned as to how we use the power at our disposal, diplomatic, economic and military and from Christian principles we need to find and implement the right answer.




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