SERMON FOR ASCENSION SUNDAY 28th MAY 2017
Along the dusty shelves stood a thousand memories, and a million hopes: grandfather’s medals, auntie’s best china, and the mantel clock with presentation plaque. All this life up for auction. Almost every Tuesday I went to this small auction house now gone from Great North Road. Sometimes I stayed to make a bid and would return home with a trophy or two.
One Tuesday there appeared on a dusty shelf a framed original photograph of Adolf Hitler. Adolf looked indignant to be placed next to the rubbish around him. Proud and defiant. He looked straight at me. I looked at Adolf and Adolf looked at me. It was a shock at first, and then I thought: could I use this photograph to meditate on evil? I had a friend who would put an object on the mantelpiece for the purpose of meditation. Every time he passed the mantelpiece the object would make him think. It could be a chalice, or a flower, and it would change each week. How far would I go towards love and forgiveness? Could I learn something from Hitler, this man of enormous evil who released a maelstrom of violence?
This week we have been shocked by the terrorist attack in Manchester. A suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, killed and maimed. It created horror but also an upsurge of love and support.
On Wednesday night the current affairs programme, Project, tried to handle a response to the terrorist attack. The question was asked what do we say to the children? It was suggested that we tell children there are good men and bad men, end of story. I believe that children need more, and they particularly need to be listened to. Children already know about the baddies and the goodies: it is the staple diet of their entertainment. They are more likely to need to know about bad theology and good theology. Project also pulled in an expert on world affairs and asked what are we to do? The expert replied – more stable governments in the Middle East, and control of extremism on the internet. The presenters were divided between those with hope and those who just accept realism. At no point was there a Christian offering, or any religious offering. Islam literally means peace and Christianity tells of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. During a multi-faith demonstration in Manchester in support of the victims of the attack, the Muslim Association raised a large banner reading: “Love for all, hatred for none.” Love for all, hatred for none.
My subject is the response to evil. And it is fitting we do this on this Ascension Sunday apart from our support for Manchester. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Wales, former Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a useful metaphor for this period between the Resurrection and the Ascension. He reminds us what it is like putting the light on first thing in a dark morning. One is dazzled, one does not see clearly, we might even walk into furniture. Eventually, the world comes right and we focus. First thing in the morning when the light goes on we are only conscious of the light. It was first thing in the morning when the Resurrection was encountered. The disciples were dis-orientated, and only aware of Jesus. It was at the Ascension that the focus went from the light to the world that the light showed up. At the Ascension we turn from the figure of Jesus to the presence of Christ in the world. There is a turning from stillness to activity. At the Ascension, Jesus did not leave us as much as He became permanently present…… He is the light by which we see. He is the light by which we see.
We have two reminders of evil, personified by Adolf Hitler, and Salman Abedi. Let us use the light of Christ to see how we can respond to evil.
I believe that, unfortunately, our first response to evil is evil. When someone attacks us or those we love, we very easily get angry and want to retaliate. We actually meet violence with violence. I would not be surprised if someone wanted to buy the photograph of Hitler in order to destroy it. The terrorist attack in Manchester can make us more eager to lash out. It is all the knee-jerk reaction of our primitive being. It is okay to be angry but we are lost as soon as anger becomes violence. Our God does not desire the death of a sinner. Let us have the mind of Christ who encouraged people to enjoy peace and love, and turn away from evil.
Father forgive us for we forget we are your children.
So our first response to evil is to become angry and allow that anger to be evil in turn.
Secondly, I believe that we are meant to face evil with a heart to understand. I did not bid for the photograph of Hitler. If I had bought it I would have pondered over it…. What was his passion? What moved him? We know now that he was increasingly under the influence of addictive drugs. How much was he in control of his life? And Salman Abedi……. What was the nature of his passion? so strong that he was willing to give his life for it. What is it like to be controlled by extreme idealism? If that was the case with him. We start asking questions like: can the person be reformed? Can this person change? In this person, is evil soft-wired or hard-wired? We assume that there is no hope with hard-wired evil. We need to ask: is there a call to protect others from this person? If imprisoned, how do we maintain hope for rehabilitation? Would God give up? Do we have the resources to counsel? To heal? Here the questions become political.
As I look at Adolf, I feel revulsion but I shall not be intimidated. I have no fear. As I look at a young terrorist I feel disgust and then sadness knowing that he took away promising young lives and he failed himself. I feel for Manchester…. A city I once lived in. I want to be defiant. And we can pray: Father, help us all become the people you wish us to be.
While our first response to evil may itself be evil, God calls us to face evil with a heart to understand. Thirdly, I also believe that we face evil with love. Within recent months I have heard at least two families, the victims of serious crime, assert that they have forgiven the convicted person. We are humbled in the face of such enormous love. But, in fact, there is no other option. Other options leave us as perpetual victims of the crime.
It might take time to get there but , in the end, we are to face evil with love. This love might have different faces. It is a love………
that protects others from evil,
a love that confronts,
a love that gives a second chance
a love that forgives.
We remember Jesus’ words from the Cross:
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
To conclude- In Rowan Williams’ metaphor, in this part of the Church’s year, moving from Easter to Ascension, we can be aware that the focus has moved from the figure of Jesus to the presence of Christ in the world. We go from a light emanating from Jesus to a light by which we see the world. Christ is now always with us as the light by which we see the world.
In or response to the evil in the world (and we think especially of the terrorist attack in Manchester),-
We need to be aware that our first response is anger. Let us avoid our anger turning to violence. In this light we pray:
Father, forgive us for we forget we are your children.
We are meant to face evil with a heart to understand. In this light we pray:
Father, help us all become the people you wish us to be.
And we are meant to face evil with love. In this light we pray:
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.