A sermon by The Revd Canon Sarah Mullally
24 August 2014
Feast of St Bartholomew
Judges 4:11-24 and Luke 22:24-30
Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead." (Judges 5:24-27)
Deborah’s poem recounts the narrative we heard read today in our Old Testament reading, it celebrates the victory of the Israelites over the Canaanites. Sat alongside the beheading of the journalist James Foley this week in retaliation for the US air strikes on Isis targets in Iraq it makes difficult listening - both are very personal and horrific executions.
I wonder do we find the act of Jael more horrific because it is carried out by a woman or the execution of James Foley because it was thought to have been carried out by a British citizen – both expose to us that the potential inhumanity has no boundaries.
In the press coverage of the death of James Foley you may have seen that President Obama said that ‘No just God would stand for what they did’. One of our mistakes in reading Old Testament scripture is that we read it in a way which suggests to us that God is standing for violence. I believe that is not the case, for me scripture is clear that God is a God of mercy and reconciliation and of peace. So just as the Dean did last week, I am going to look first at the context of our passage and then at what we can learn from it.
Our passage comes after the death of Joshua when Israel is governed by Judges – a sort of united monarchy. Israel had become a weaker nation and they had become the victims of other aggressors. There were internal struggles and leaders arose spontaneously and out of conflict, where people looked to them to become saviours. The struggles which arose did so based on religion or on environmental factors, such as power struggles for coastal plains or fertile hill country – it was a time of conflict.
And it is here that we find Deborah and Barak in Northern Israel where they had come under pressure from the North in the form of the Canaanites who had superior forces. Then the defeat of the Canaanites came as a result of the death of Sisera by a woman (in fact two women).
The passage and Deborah’s poem is written sometime after the event, at a time when Israel find themselves again oppressed from every side. The author takes old memories and remembered historical facts and retells them in a way which attributes the victory over the Canaanites to YHWH in order to help explain events and to give them hope that God would again bring them out of oppression. The victory of God through violence is attributed to him.
In contrast the overall picture of scripture is of a God of reconciliation and peace. A God of mercy and justice, a God who calls us to forgive not just once, not just seven times but seven times seven. A God that calls us to turn the other cheek. The model of Christ is to live as one who serves and counts others better than themselves.
The Eucharist is a reminder to us of the human condition and that war and violence have no part in the kingdom of God.
Inside the United Nations building in New York on two opposite walls, stand two huge mosaics. One pictures fears and oppression and the other hope, joy and celebration. And nearby stands a brightly lit mosaic inscribed with the words ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Matthews 7:12).
In such words there is a dream for humanity in the coming of the kingdom of God; a time when all will be reconciled and people will live in harmony, joy and hope rather than fear and oppression. A time when we will count others better than ourselves, when all of us will follow the model of Christ and be as one who serves others.
At the heart of the gospel message is the profound longing that one day there will be no more death and no more mourning, sadness or pain. However we know that whilst the Kingdom of God is already here, it is not yet here in full. We continue to live in a world where there is hatred and oppression and to bring reconciliation to Iraq, Ukraine or Gaza will not be easy.
On Wednesday as the footage of the beheading of James Foley was released, Frank Gardner on Radio BBC 4 suggested that such acts were powerful in influencing young men who were vulnerable to a compelling narrative of oppression and belief for the need for revenge.
You will not have missed the coverage on television of Palestinians or Israelis standing in front of bombed houses and telling how they will return with their children so that they can see what their enemies have done so they will not forget it.
You may recall in 2006 the Vicar who resigned after her daughter was killed in the terrorist attack in London the year before. Rev Julia Nicholson said: "It's very difficult to stand behind an altar and lead people in words of peace and reconciliation and forgiveness when I feel very far from that myself."
I don’t know what reaction you had to these stories or the account of Jael but I know that I have never been in those situations. I have never been bombed out of my home, I have not lost my daughter to a terrorist attack and I have not been in the positon where I fear someone so much that I have had to deceive them and then put a tent peg through their head, I have never had to leave my home taking nothing with me so I have little understanding of how I would react if I was in those positions. Could I forgive? Could I turn the other cheek?
Forgiveness is not easy. We cannot expect that people will be reconciled simply because we would like it that way. True reconciliation is the hardest task for humanity to achieve. We more often see a sort of armed neutrality where we hold to ourselves the weapons of hurt, suspicion, fear and distrust, ready to deploy them at the first opportunity – true reconciliation is harder.
The Right Revd Peter Price in his book ‘Undersong’ (DLT 2002) talks about his experience of the Northern Ireland peace process. About how reconciliation often began with informal encounters among different individuals and groups in different communities. It was only when they listened to each others stories that they began to see areas of commonality and in that commonality they began to find an ability to lay aside their prejudice, their jealousies and anger and ambitions. This takes courage – to understand someone’s story, to understand our prejudices and to begin to live in their service.
Maybe the first step to world peace is to find peace within one self – to stop holding grudges, let go of resentments. Peacemaking should start as an internal activity. If I am not able to do this, how can I expect my reaction to be any different than those we condemn for violence because they are oppressed or under threat for their lives.
Our Old Testament narrative is part of the reimagining tradition of the Jewish people re telling their story to give them hope. Remembering is important for us, it is good to remember what God has done, it can bring us hope for our present and life for our future, as individuals and as a community of faith.
Within the Eucharist we remember Christ’s death and suffering and his forgiveness which reconciled us to him and this should influence our present, to allow us to start the process of reconciliation in our own lives. The characterisation of Deborah and Jael remind us that inhumanity has no boundaries but it also reminds us that each one of us has freedom to act.
Let us therefore act in a way which demonstrates our ability to think peace and to bring peace and not just pray for peace. Amen.