A Sermon from Sherborne

If your enemies are hungry, feed them

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 3 September 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

My first training in public speaking began early, when the Head of English at school told me he wanted me to be the main speaker in one of the teams he was fielding in the English Speaking Union’s public speaking competition. Being only in the fourth form, ours was the ‘D’ team, but we did well in both the area and the regional competitions. Thereinafter I took part each year until I left school, and although we never reached the national finals, the experience – and the coaching we received – have certainly stood me in good stead ever since.

One regional final sticks in my mind for a painful reason. I had chosen to speak about the Vietnam War, which had begun in 1955 when I was only four. By the time I was sixteen it looked utterly unwinnable, yet US troops were not to leave until 1973, when I was 22. By 1975 the North had overrun the South and established a single communist state. Over 58,000 American troops had died in vain. Vietnamese fatalities numbered well over three million, both civilians and combatants.

Back in 1967 I simply didn’t understand what the Americans hoped to achieve, nor how they could begin to expect victory. Why don’t politicians read history? Western involvement in the East has always been disastrous. It still is. And in my speech I said so. I daresay there was some teenage arrogance in my assumption that I knew best, though I think I had, and still have, history on my side.

When the adjudication came, our team was placed last. The head adjudicator commented briefly on the other teams but devoted the rest of his assessment to what I had said. Not how I had said it; not how I had answered the questions – which is what he should have been judging – but to express his total and vehement disagreement with my arguments. And he took particular exception to my quoting from today’s New Testament reading, from Romans: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” Rom. 12. 20, 21]

Well, burning coals were certainly heaped upon my head that day, and when the adjudicator had run out of puff and indignation there was complete silence in the room, broken only by my Headmaster slamming the door as he left in disgust.

It was an important lesson in how subversive scripture can be: subversive of our personal beliefs and prejudices; subversive of the plans and policies of politicians. Preach on texts like that and you can expect opposition, some of it bitter.

All of this has been in my mind for some time as I have sensed a rising tide of anger that began with the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 11th September 2001 and which has been surging ever more powerfully after each terrorist attack, in London, Paris, Manchester, Barcelona and in so many other towns and cities all over the world. It is being stirred-up still more by the abuse of young English girls regarded by gangs of Muslim men as “white trash”. And I don’t just mean the anger of victims and their families directed at the perpetrators. I mean a more general anger felt by thousands of otherwise decent and peace-loving ordinary citizens who have begun to use words such as ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ as labels of hate.

What we need to remember is that the Qur’an and true Islam have nothing but condemnation for murder and terrorism, tyranny, exploitation and abuse. Indeed, we need to be aware that within Islam there is currently a fierce struggle going on for its very soul – a struggle between mainstream, moderate Moslems and the forces of fundamentalism. It is a struggle in which the West and Westerners sometimes become the targets of fanaticism, but it is a struggle which the moderates will lose if, instead of supporting them, we lump them together with those whose warped view of Islam they are striving to oppose.

In any case, Christians are people committed to turning enemies into friends. Those responsible for terrorist attacks or the abuse of young white girls must always be identified and justly punished. But it is no part of the Christian duty to make an enemy of Islam. Remember that it was the Christian West which first coined the terrible phrase “Holy War” when it stepped outside its own “Just War” tradition to perpetrate those bloodstained episodes of history we call the Crusades. No. Our duty as Christians is to engage with all our best powers of heart and mind and strength in God’s project of transforming the world into a garden, a place of peace where swords can become ploughshares and spears are changed into pruning hooks.

The preeminent symbol of our faith is the Cross. There was nothing new about the cross when Jesus was nailed to one. It was the chosen instrument of execution of the Roman occupying forces in Palestine just as the Nazis chose the gas chamber and today’s terrorists choose to turn commercial aircraft into deadly missiles. Contemporary chronicles of Jewish revolts in the first half of the first Christian century speak of thousands of crosses being erected outside Jerusalem as the Romans took their revenge; so many that they looked like a forest in winter. But one man and one death transformed that common gallows into a symbol of love, of light and of life. And love, light and life are still the currency in which Christians must trade – not hatred, fire and fury.

Once, many years ago, I took a turn at a potter’s wheel. The lump of wet clay, unfashioned and unshaped, was before me. Everything depended on what I could make of it. And all I could manage was something mis-shapen, deformed and ugly. Then the potter took over, the master craftsman, and in his hands the ugliness was transformed into an object of beauty and delight. Suffering comes to us like the potter’s clay, raw and unfashioned. Everything depends on what we do with it. We have the potential to turn it into something bitter and twisted and hateful, or something good and true and lovely. And if – and only if – we and all men and women of goodwill allow Christ the master craftsman to stand beside us and guide our hands, things good and true and lovely can be fashioned from the ugliness and horror which continue to disfigure our world.

As we sit, so let us pray:

O Jesus, Master Carpenter of Nazareth, who on the cross, through wood and nails worked humankind’s salvation; wield well your tools in this your workshop; that we who come to you rough-hewn may by your hands be fashioned to a truer beauty and a greater usefulness, as living instruments of your peace, for the honour of your holy name.  Amen.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 03/09/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne