A sermon preached by Sarum Canon, Loretta Minghella, on the occasion of the College of Canons' installation of new Canons
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In giving me today this special opportunity to play a part in the life of the Cathedral and the Diocese here in Salisbury, you do me the most enormous honour. I am so grateful. Please be assured that I will take very seriously my promise to do what I can to nurture the links between Christian Aid and the Diocese of Salisbury and to encourage the ministry and mission of our Christian tradition.
Now pity poor Pam in the Dean’s office because my assistant and I have been bothering her with a fair few questions about the day’s events. This is the beginning of a journey into the life of the Diocese which I wanted to be properly prepared for. Pam has patiently answered all our questions, so that any remaining confusion is all down to me!
Perhaps you are like me, and want to know exactly what’s expected of you.
If so, today’s Old Testament reading might be your kind of thing – a clear set of instructions with no ambiguities, telling the Israelites exactly what the Passover would require. Every last detail spelt out. The lamb must not be raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, leftovers burned straight after. Nothing left to chance. And the Israelites were to be ready to move on: loins girded, sandals on their feet, staff in their hand.
That is what we can sometimes find ourselves asking for today when it comes to our Christian duty – a clear, delineated path showing exactly the steps to take in order to meet our obligations, whether that be to God, our neighbours or ourselves. But our faith may lead us down paths we don’t always expect to be taking.
As a law student, I was clear in my own mind that I wanted to become a Rumpole style criminal lawyer and stay in private practice until the end of my days. As you’ll have realised, it didn’t quite turn out like that. The path I thought I was on has been disrupted many times, but in the end, has been most seriously disrupted by love.
That’s what happened too to the lawyer we heard about in Luke’s gospel this evening as he put his question to Jesus. Like any self-respecting lawyer, he wanted to know what would make for a straight path, what the rules were: Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?
And what do we hear? That it’s all about love – love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength - and your neighbour as yourself. And once we allow ourselves to be guided by love, the path is, we find, much less predictable.
That indeed was the experience of the Good Samaritan. Minding his own business, hurrying along from A to B, he comes across the victim of a mugging on the other side of a rather dodgy stretch of road. And unlike the other passers-by, he stops. He goes out of his way to help. He accompanies the injured person until he knows he is out of danger.
With shocking anti-foreigner sentiment now all too common-place, the broad-brush painting in our public discourse of millions of refugees as at best, greedy immigrants after our jobs, at worst, terrorists after our women and children, it’s not hard to look around and see the marginalised groups who may need us to cross over the road. But just how far does our duty extend?
We can get ourselves in a moral mess, if we judge our own behaviour solely by the question of what the law requires. The law may leap from a moral code but it doesn’t define that code and it seldom covers the whole ground of what a follower of Christ might reasonably be expected to do.
To understand how the path of love may take you far beyond what the law requires, let me take you to Haiti, and to meet Prospery Raymond, the country manager of our programme there.
Of course he is very busy at the moment with Hurricane Matthew, and I’ll come back to the hurricane later, but I want to speak first of events which took place several years ago now.
On the last day of my visit to Haiti in 2011, Prospery took me to where the Christian Aid office had stood, until the day of the huge earthquake the year before. We stood in front of a large pile of rubble, the dimensions of an office building still just discernible.
When the earthquake struck he was trapped by falling masonry in his office on the ground floor. The first floor collapsed into the ground floor and much of the ground floor collapsed into the ground. Prospery himself was rescued by a group of young boys who were passing by. It was a task requiring strength and delicacy in equal measure. The masonry around him had become so precariously balanced that every slight movement risked bringing it down on top of him. In the hour and a half it took to free him, he said he learned the true meaning of the words, heart in your mouth, because his heartbeat was so loud that it appeared to be coming from just below his tongue. Extracted at last, what would you have done? You and I might have gone home at that point. But not Prospery.
He set about rescuing Eveyln, a staffer from our Dutch sister agency with whom we shared office space. She was by this time trapped below ground, with only a small opening through which they could see that she was very seriously hurt. After 7 hours or so, they managed to pull her out by her broken shoulders and Prospery himself carried her to the hospital. Not a long walk in normal circumstances, but these were not normal circumstances. It was a case of picking out a winding path along the roads, stepping over the dead and walking around the dying. Every so often, he’d put Evelyn down for a rest, and people would die round them, and he’d pick her up and start again. After giving her over to hospital staff, what next?
You and I might have gone home at that point. But not Prospery. He turned round and thought, to himself, look what has happened to my country. It’s time to mount the Christian Aid relief effort. And that’s what Prospery did next.
It is hard to imagine what life would be like not only in Haiti but in many other countries in which we work, if Christian Aid and other NGO staff and supporters did only the legal minimum.
The law is not the right place to look for the moral answer. The law is a human construct. It may in many circumstances still be lawful for a company to make its money in a developing country but book its income to its subsidiary registered offshore and not pay any taxes in the developing country at all. It is still lawful to rely exclusively on fossil fuels for transport, heating, hot water and so on. But knowing the impact of tax dodging and climate change on the world’s poorest people, as we now do, I think our moral duty must be to set about making a big shift, and to get our heads round just how many things we have to start doing differently.
The law of this country has quite a narrow definition of the concept of neighbour, as those closely and directly affected by our actions, and that’s because the law cannot bear unlimited obligation.
But In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows us that neighbour means not just a person like you or close to you but those for whom you might have no particular regard, or have perhaps even particular disregard, strangers in every sense.
This is not the charity begins at home, narrow reading of neighbour which the lawyer in Luke was anticipating. Jesus makes it clear that EVERY person is deserving of our attention and our love. And yes, tending to their needs may disrupt our journey, alter our path, even involve us in great sacrifice. Love is content to bear unlimited obligation - even to the point of death, death on the cross.
I know that at Salisbury, the plight of the people in South Sudan is very close to your heart. Even before the events of this last summer, 2.5 million people had been displaced. Since this summer’s fighting in Juba, tens of thousands more have had to flee their homes. And that is just one country. Today, there are more than 65 million people displaced globally. Our sisters, our brothers, our neighbours. Forced from their homes by violence, fear or desperation, their stories are as harrowing as each refugee is deserving of safety, freedom and hope.
The stories we hear and the stories we tell are important. They help us shape our thoughts, form our opinions and set the agenda. So when refugees are portrayed negatively in the media, their inherent dignity is challenged. But every one of us has a voice in this story, and in times of political uncertainty at home our message of shared humanity is more important than ever. That’s why at Christian Aid we have launched a campaign called Change the Story which encourages our supporters to share stories of hospitality and the positive contributions that refugees make in our communities.
On our website, you can find links that will tell you how you can write to your local newspaper with a story that changes the narrative around refugees, you can volunteer at a refugee centre or fundraising event, and of course, you can pray, for those who are displaced and suffering, and for those who are seeking to help them. Please do reach out in any way you can
Please also continue to SpeakUP on climate change, as you have so successfully done in these last few years. Our politicians need to hear that you still think it is a priority, that the agreement struck in Paris in which Bishop Nick and this diocese played an important role, that agreement needs implementing if the poor, the vulnerable and the unborn are to be properly protected. And if extreme weather events like last week’s Hurricane Matthew are to be kept to a minimum.
As we began our preparations at Christian Aid for Hurricane Matthew, evacuations were arranged, supplies of food and other essentials prepositioned. Just those simple steps saved so many lives. And in London and in Haiti, we all stood ready to respond as the Hurricane approached. Prospery is still our country manager there and he emailed from Haiti to thank us for all the support from London. ‘We are at the beginning of this journey’. He said. ‘We will continue to save life and support the vulnerable people affected. The team is happy to move things forward. Keep Haiti in your prayers for another few days.’ At the end he wrote in Creole, ‘Ankouraje’ which he translated simply as ‘let’s do it’.
Brothers and sisters, we need to keep our eyes open to see the chances we are given to be a good neighbour to others, whether or not the law requires it and whether or not it was in our original plan. And may we be known for being ready and willing, sandals on our feet, staff in in our hand, to do whatever it takes – to love.