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'The Land' 5viii18

A sermon preached by Canon Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close                  The Tenth Sunday after Trinity

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'The Land' 5viii18

Posted By : Ian Woodward Sunday 5th August 2018
A sermon preached by Canon Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close                 
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity

Joshua 1:1-11, John 18:33-40

You may already be aware of this but for a reason which somewhat escapes me, last Wednesday was ‘Yorkshire Day’. I’m know Yorkshire is a wonderful place and I believe it was about merging all the local councils in Yorkshire into one single authority rather like Greater London or the West Midland or Greater Manchester, and one of the protagonists for this move was John Sentamu the Archbishop of York.  I recall being at sea with a veteran and very experienced old salt who was born in Whitby, and become what used be called something of a ‘Sea Daddy’, a mentor to new midshipmen and ratings. He had been in the Navy for almost 40 years having joined as a boy seaman, and was in the Korean War in aircraft carriers. He ended his career commanding a frigate. He was about to retire and became somewhat philosophical and sage like. He said to me ‘there are only two sorts of people in this world: those who were born in Yorkshire and those who wish they born in Yorkshire’!                                                                                                                   I have often wondered and puzzled on what is it about land and place that seemingly pervades virtually every aspect of our existence? My concordance lists more than 1500 occurrences of the word ‘Land’ in the bible. Perhaps it is actually about existence or at least our existing. Perhaps it’s about identity which, without a sense of place we don’t know who we are. What is it that shapes us and gives us values and identities? Another puzzle to me which somewhat counters this is how sport and particularly football is now virtually devoid of roots or a local identity. Cricket just about hangs on to it in a sense of county loyalty, and particularly of course, Yorkshire.                                                                                                                                           What is it that drives human beings to put down roots? Perhaps without them a sense of being lost, displaced and homeless which is pervasive in contemporary culture. Roots and place are essential to the creation of society, to health and education and development, but also sadly the greed for expansion or domination and thus conflict.   There is a yearning to belong somewhere, as the American theologian Walter Brueggemann says; to have a home, to be in a safe place, is a deep and moving pursuit. Loss of place and yearning for place are dominant images. In his book ‘A nation of Strangers’ Vance Packard writing in 1972 says that ‘these longings may be understood in terms of sociological displacement and especially for Americans – highly mobile and rootless, as their entire social fabric becomes an artefact designed for obsolescence, and this design includes even us consumers.’ ‘There is a psychological dislocation as increasing numbers of persons are disoriented, characterized as possessors of what he calls ‘The homeless mind’. Those whom we imagine to be secure and invested with ’turf’ in our time experience profound dislocation, and we are, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, “as having everything, and yet possessing nothing” as St Paul writes in  2nd Corinthians. Brueggemann holds the view that the land is a prism for biblical faith but is ‘Land’ a promise or a problem. It starts as Israel as God’s homeless people where landlessness meant homelessness and exile. Self-evidently this is not of course an exclusively old struggle indeed it is more visible and evident than ever before, all over the world. But the undeniable link and progression from possessing the land and building nationhood is at the heart of identity. For Israel, her story of exile and land, and kingdom and thus identity was told and remembered throughout the Old Testament. And is still recalled every Sabbath evening in Jewish families today. In our first reading we are reminded that Joshua was charged with divine intervention and the privilege of leading the Israelites across the river Jordan into the land of Canaan, the ‘Promised Land’. The land was God’s gift, promised to the ancestors in the stories in Genesis and secured by conquest under God’s military leadership. Whilst not the subject of this sermon I do reflect on what was God telling Moses in not permitting him to lead his people after 40 years of leadership to that expected moment of success and glory – perhaps it was a lesson for him and indeed us, to not be triumphant but to trust implicitly in God’s plans for us, with a healthy dose of modesty. However, in generations to come, Israel’s possession of its land would often be endangered by outside attack or foreign domination but in the book Joshua, Israel sustained its claim on the land given to it by God. This belief still holds true – just in recent weeks, there is conflict on its borders on the West Bank and with Hamas and Jihadist support.                                                                                                                               Our reading about Jesus before Pontius Pilate is a short, two part pericope covering firstly Pilate’s conversation with Jesus and then his question to the Jews resulting in the release of Barabbas. As is typical of Jesus throughout John’s Gospel he responds to Pilate’s question with a question of his own. In the first, Jesus is at some pains to make it clear to Pilate about his identity and where he is from, and then his discourse on kingship – but king of whom and king of where, which nation and which land? And then most strikingly ‘What is truth?’ Truth is a defining mark for any community and nation.                                                                                                                                                  So in considering what it is that defines us, it is not of course just where we come from – our place that defines us. Our identity, our nationhood is defined by our values and the way relate to one another within our communities and those beyond our borders in the international community. Within our own lands there are calls for greater independence in the regions and within the European Union a tug of philosophies about retaining national identity or seemingly ever greater integration.  In my experiences of Africa and the Middle East and particularly Sudan and South Sudan I have seen and heard deeply shocking racism and prejudice not only between Arab and African, but Christian and Muslim and shamefully, between Christian and Christian too. Whilst there is a peace agreement within South Sudan which is holding in the main, there are still skirmishes and armed gangs of youths roam with impunity. At independence in 2011 South Sudan started of life as a new nation full of hope and promise but within 16 months the new country was at war with itself. The old internal differences had been hidden by a united effort to be independent from the North but once Khartoum’s influence had declined as a result of enacting the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the deeply rooted tribal differences re-surfaced to the extent that there are now more than a million South Sudanese – a tenth of the population in exile in Uganda and many hundreds of thousands have similarly fled to Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya and huge numbers in UN refugee camps within South Sudan itself and very sadly demarcated by tribe and the homeland for their own safety and protection. There are more than 60 major tribes and smaller clans in South Sudan who for centuries have sustained their own ways of life and traditions. Christianity didn’t reach there until the end of the 19th century so the peoples’ traditional farming on the one hand and cattle grazing on the other were always opposed activities. And land has been at the centre of the ancient brutal conflicts. When drought hits the land cattle have to be moved to where there is sustainable grazing, which is often on land belonging to a different tribe and all too often the result is conflict and enmity which is passed on down through the generations, including amongst the Christian communities. History and tradition have become the enemy of peaceful coexistence. So the unanswerable question that the Church has to ask is ‘What is more important to you, to us; your tribe or your faith. Ancient lands there have been the support base for the tribes for so long that without a new look at that conundrum of faith or tribe and their land without a meaningful Christian compromise condemns a people to poverty and violence. We pray that the Church with our support can change all this for the better. Amen