MP3 (Click Here)
Our Service today considered the ways we might have to being Light to the world. The celebrations of Diwali, the Festival of Light, earlier this week reminds us of the value of turning darkness to light, evil to good, war to peace. The current impasse on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral between the established church, the City institutions, and the Occupy movement provides a timely opportunity to reflect on our own views of bringing good to the world. When presented with the challenges to the established system, when we question the way in which we engage with the world, we need to ask the question - not 'What Would Jesus Do?', but rather 'What Would You Do?'.
The following is the full text of our sermon today. To download an MP3 of it, please click the link above.
On the surface, the Church of England does not seem to have had a good week. By closing St Paul’s cathedral, on questionable grounds of health and safety, and by asking the Occupy protestors to move on, in order to allow tourists to return, with their £20,000 per day cash contribution, the church, or more particularly St Paul’s, has been accused of putting profit before principles. It has also lost the services, hopefully only temporarily, of the talented Canon Giles Fraser.
There will be, however, those that are pleased to have seen the debate raised to the highest news levels. What is the purpose responsibility of religious establishments? How can they best provide the necessary support to those who seek a life based on religious principles.
Not, of course, that the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement is one that emerged from religious contemplation – although the camp has provided a prayer space for protestors. It is a group, a movement, that seeks political change – a change to an economic structure that is seen to contribute to the large disparity between rich and poor. Both in this country and across the world.
And that hope, that aim, aligns with many religious principles – not just those from Christianity, but from many others across the world and over time.
Of course, despite begin neither the source nor the object of the protest, St Paul’s Cathedral now finds itself being held up by both sides of the debate as a demonstration of the church’s support for their arguments. The City Chief Executives see the refusal of the protestors to listen and move on as indicative of their stubbornness and refusal to compromise. The protestors see the support of Canon Fraser as an indication of the support of the church for their movement. And the closure of St Pauls as a sign of the lack of support for their movement by the very same people.
It is a sad fact that this has become the main story. The point of the protest has taken second fiddle.
It’s very easy to look at the debate and reflect that the clash of religion and the real world is just too messy. It’s all too easy to conclude there is an obvious need to make sure religion and the ‘real world’ can co-exist – but that we need to make sure they do not step on one another’s toes.
But is it really that simple? I’m not so sure. As the late Palfrey Perkins put it:
“Faith is not an abstraction, but a way of living.”
If we are to be true to our faith – to that quiet centre of our lives – that driving force in our hearts and minds - then surely there can be no separation between our actions in that supposedly ‘real world’, and the deep hopes of our hearts. Our spiritual core.
The problems we encounter in life – whether directly affecting us, or affecting others, are surely the focus of our inner truths. We must try to bring hope and light to the world, not just ourselves, if we are to live our faith in the society we inhabit.
Sadly, this does not mean there is an easy answer to every question. I cannot stand here and tell you that that Occupy London movement is right. Nor can I tell you it is wrong.
Life is rarely a choice between right and wrong, there are always a number of shades between light and dark. Between falsehood and truth.
And as Unitarians, ever willing to complicate the most simple of issues, there is the recognition that there are many paths to one’s own truth. That the path you follow is not necessarily, and indeed is rarely, the same path as that of your neighbour.
But our path is surely walked with the hope that we can turn evil to good. Turn dark to light.
Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and others this week, is a fabulous reminder of the wonder we find when the Light, or the truth, is made manifest. When good triumphs over evil, and peace over war.
In our second reading, reflecting on how to choose a seat on the plane, Sarah York spoke of the importance of choosing light over dark. Of choosing the possibility of new wonders, rather than simple convenience.
Several years ago, returning from a trip to Turkey, I flew in to Heathrow in late October. It was a Saturday, the Saturday in Diwali.
The flight path into Heathrow coming from the East, takes you low over Southall, and Ealing, Hanwell and Acton. Places where there are concentrations of Hindus, Sikhs and others.
It was Diwali, it was the festival of Lights. It was a Saturday evening. The fireworks were astonishing.
I had chosen a window seat, although with no conscious recognition of the possible significance. The view of light and celebration in the dark autumn night was truly magnificent. Everywhere I looked, there were fireworks. Light showing true wonder and celebration. I wanted to be out there with them all. Enjoying life. Remembering the importance of light in our lives. And bringing together the religious life with the life more ordinary. A nagging reminder of the need to bring faith – its celebrations and its messages – into the everyday.
For Hindus, many different stories and traditions are celebrated at this time. There is the story of the god Rama returning from banishment. A similar story of Pandavas returning from banishment and exile. Also a story of the killing of an evil demon, Narakasura.
These are all myths. Stories. Stories to help reflect on the need to good to flourish in the world. For the importance of truth. The fundamental need to overturn evil and falsehood wherever we are able.
But it’s not easy to do this, it it? As poor old St Pauls found this week. How to follow their own message of bringing hope and love to the world, whilst managing to keep their doors open and tourist money coming in.
Many commentators have this week referred to the story of Jesus in the temple. An event recorded in Christianity’s book of stories, the Bible. Now, many commentators believe that there are several stories in the Bible that are not strictly true. Of course, some of the older myths are more obvious, but there is also good reason to question the factual accuracy of many more recent stories, especially those around events in the life of Jesus. This doesn’t make them any less valid – they are stories to describe a truth. They might be based on fact, but they may have been altered for teaching purposes. Nothing wrong with that.
But, unlike many other moments of Jesus’s life recorded in the Bible, the story of the overturned tables in the Temple is recorded, in almost exactly the same terms, in all four Gospels. The books of the Bible that describe Jesus’ life.
It’s quite rare that happens. A story that appears in such similar detail in all four books.
So, this is seen to indicate that it is very likely to be true. And to have been an event of such fundamental importance in the preaching life of Jesus, that people would remember him for it.
Jesus’ concern appears to be the way in which worshippers were preyed upon by those looking for a quick profit. The sheep, cattle and doves were likely to have been brought to the Temple for sacrifice. And, in the same way that florists near cemeteries have very expensive flowers, these sellers were charging high mark-ups on animals for sacrifice. So high in fact that there needed to be bankers, or money-changers, on tap to lend people the money to buy the overly expensive animals.
Jesus was concerned and annoyed with those who sought to profit from those who came to worship. Taking money from those who were seeking to praise God. From those who held religion high in their lives.
This is not necessarily the same as suggesting Jesus was opposed to money-lenders more generally. Although this is the view some commentators have taken.
So, to take the lead suggested by a number of self-appointed journalist theologians this week, in 2011, in the City of London,
What Would Jesus Do?
I wouldn’t dare to presume. Not because this is Jesus we are talking about, but because I wouldn’t presume to know how anyone might react in a given situation.
More important to me is ‘What Would I Do?’ or, perhaps, ‘What Should I Do?’
And the Occupy London movement provides a good and necessary opportunity to pause and reflect on our true beliefs and our inner feelings.
This is a matter for conscience concern. The Inquirer this week contains an excellent article by Linda Hart setting out the key points of the movement and its practice. I strongly recommend you to read it if you are able. It is an article to be read and reflected upon.
I believe many of the aims of the movement are noble and near universal ones. Such as the need for truly independent regulators for the economic structures upon which we all rely; a call for a more equitable institutional and economic structure to put people and the planet first; a commitment to stand in solidarity with the global oppressed. Others aims and objectives are more specific and may, or may not, be something to which you or I might fully subscribe.
But without the Occupy movement – could you really say you had taken much time to reflect upon some of these issues, and ask what you might do to live out your own truths and hopes in this world?
In March, I attended a debate organised by the Robin Hood Tax movement. My full report was published in the Inquirer last April. The debate focussed on the question ‘to what extent do the banks have a responsibility to contribute to the common good and, if so, is the proposed Robin Hood Tax the solution?’. The Robin Hood Tax is a proposal to charge banks a tiny % on every transaction they make, and to use the resulting billions for good causes.
The debate was held between leading figures on both sides of the argument. And, co-incidentally, was held in St Paul’s Cathedral. At the express invitation of Giles Fraser.
One of the more persuasive voices at the table, Peter Selby, the former Bishop of Worcester, raised the concern that an attack on the banks, and the use of an ‘invisible’ tax to make good our guilt at not doing enough, or giving enough, to relieve poverty or inequality in the world was not sufficient.
My reflection on the debate led me to question how I might contribute to a campaign for reform. Was I happy with the institutions that were managing my money? If not, did I have the moral conviction to complain and/or move my funds to an organisation I felt more comfortable with? It might mean less attractive financial deals – but was my focus on me, or making the world a more caring place?
And, more broadly, what else can I do to live out my faith in my everyday life.
I did move my bank account. There are other steps I know I need to take too. I must take. If I am to truly practice what I, literally, preach.
What Do I Believe To Be Right?
What Do You Believe To Be Right?
What Would I Do?
What Would You Do?
What Can I Do?
What Can You Do?
What Can We Do?
These are the questions that are raised by the Occupy movement. Your answers may be very different to theirs. Or they may be the same. Or, some shade inbetween. But the important point is that you have reflected on your approach to life. That you have checked your own beliefs. That you have taken the opportunity to realign your everyday activities, where possible, to put your faith into action.
Diwali reminds us of the great joy that can brought to the world by following the Light, by overturning evil. Sarah York reminds us that we often, if not always, have an opportunity to choose the window seat – the seat of new horizons and of light.
What Would You Do?