Posted in Church of England, Croydon, Uncategorized

Remembering to remember – a sermon for November 11

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present* help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city;* it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.*
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.*

Some of you may remember seeing Mostar on the television, under siege in 1992 and 1993 during the civil war which ended with the break up of Yugoslavia. The ancient town in its beautiful setting was divided into three parts, with gunfire exchanged at practically point blank range across the streets. Most famously, the ancient bridge was destroyed by a lengthy bombardment, eventually collapsing hundreds of feet into the gorge below. The Old Town of Mostar, which centred in the bridge, was a pile of ruins. Some of the destruction wasn’t militarily important – it’s been described instead as “killing memory”, in which evidence of a shared cultural heritage and peaceful co-existence were deliberately destroyed.

This summer, along with thousands of other tourists, I visited Mostar, in what is now Bosnia Herzegovina. Now it is all restored – and more than restored. Visiting Mostar is like visiting a brand new medieval town – except that there are some ruined shells of buildings outside the centre, reminders of the conflict. But in the Old Town, it is almost as if it had never been. The memories are hidden away, easy to ignore by the tourists flooding through the streets. Everyone who lives there knows what happened – but it feels as if it’s all a bit too painful to remember. Instead there’s the marvellous restoration, making it look as if the destruction had never been, and the focus on the good living to be made from tourism.

The civil war tried to destroy the memory of peace, and the restoration (it seemed to me) tried to wipe out the memory of war. The whole thing made me realise how important it is to remember – to remember the good as well as the bad, the violence of war as well as the harmony of peace. If any people tries to live without memories, we lose our moorings, we end up tossed this way and that, no longer really sure who we are or what our identity is.

Remembrance Sunday is a day when we can remember together both the tragedies and the glories of our history, and those millions of individual stories which make up the story of our community, and our nation. We bring our own stories and memories – some of conflicts many years ago, some of the conflicts still being fought today. We remember them together, because it is only by doing so that we are able to make some sort of sense out of the suffering of war.

So today we remember those who have died in war: particularly those who fought, but also those who were the civilian casualties, those who were too old or not old enough to have any part in conflict, the countless people whose lives were devastated by injury or bereavement. It’s a day when we remember much that might have been otherwise, that might have been happier and better. And so grief is part of what remembrance must mean.

But then alongside grief there is also respect, and honour. Respect is not the pride that glories in defeating enemies, that makes itself out to be somehow better because it is stronger. When we honour the fallen, we are not making judgements or giving a verdict but recognising something good in itself. Remembrance did not begin as a celebration of victory, but as a way for a nation to deal with the fact that 887 thousand servicemen had died – about 2% of the entire population of the country.

Today we share a proper respect for those who have gone before us and have done what had to be done, even at the risk of their own lives. When we are uncertain about whether we have the strength to live for our deepest beliefs and values, it is right to take inspiration from those who were ordinary people like us, but yet found the strength to do the job they were given even in the face of death. Whether they were infantrymen or pilots, or seamen, fire fighters or stretcher bearers; whether they carried arms or healed the wounded, it is right to respect and honour those who did the thing their conscience told them was right, even if it led them to risk and lose their lives.

Psalm 46 was written out of the experience of war. The writer is experiencing a tumult which is almost like the end of the world: and war can be that much of a catastrophe. But beyond the uproar of the nations and more powerful than the worst catastrophe, the writer has faith in God. For him, and for all those who believe, God is the one who can bring peace and give strength in the midst of the greatest turmoil, because it is God who will also bring peace at last to the whole earth. God is not weak; in this psalm he is portrayed as defeating the forces of war, making peace through his own victory.

When we also attempt to make peace – and even when it is necessary to use the controlled violence of war in order to oppose even worse – we can hope that we are motivated by a desire, not to put ourselves in the place of God, but to make the peace in which we will see that we share a common humanity and a common creator, and that war should have no place in our relationships between nation and nation.

So in our remembering today, with grief, with respect and with honour, we also look forward in hope to the promise of peace and justice which is our common aim, and which is made possible for us today by those who went before us.

Posted in Croydon

Learning to speak ubuntu from Desmond Tutu

I have been privileged this week to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was visiting Croydon to see, and celebrate some of the work of the Tutu Foundation (whose first Chair was the late lamented Colin Slee). With many hundred others, I saw a dance performance blending south Indian music and rhythms with salsa and western dance music, and listended to music combining a drumming ensemble and classical musicians. These were emblems of the Foundation’s work to bring together people of different traditions and backgrounds, and to enable them to celebrate what each has to offer the other. The Foundation has been working in Croydon, as in other area of possible social dislocation and division, to promote ubuntu. What is ubuntu (when it’s not a computer operating system!)?  – here is the Foundation’s own definition:

Said to be the ‘glue’ which held together the volatile and fragile nation of South Africa after the end of apartheid, ubuntu teaches us to look beyond ourselves – and in so doing, to become more fully human. Ubuntu is a traditional Southern African philosophy which emphasis our common humanity; our connectedness and interdependence as fellow human beings.

“I am, because you are” says Archbishop Tutu; “how I behave impacts not only on me but also others around me because we all belong together.” So a person with ubuntu is generous, thoughtful and respectful towards others, appreciating the differences that together make us greater than the sum of our parts.

Reflecting on ubuntu also helped me to recognise the gift that I received from our recent visitors from the diocese of Central Zimbabwe. The most precious gift was exactly that sense I had when with them, that our human identity is something that springs out of our relationships with each other, rather than coming first. We are not first of all individuals, but first of all we are in relationship.

That is an insight of many centuries in southern Africa, and it is also profoundly Christian. Many Western Christians have lost sight of the fact that we are called into faith in a body – the body of Christ, which is the church. As Christ lives in us and we in Christ, we are also equally intimately linked to one another. Some Christians in richer countries worry about how our relationships with believers in places like Zimbabwe can be an equal one, when we have so much. We may need to heed again the message to the church in Laodicea, in the Book of Revelation ‘For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing.” You do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.’ (Revelation 3:17). The riches of human relationship which the philosophy of ubuntu opens up – and which the gospel teaches – are far greater than any amount of material wealth.

Posted in Croydon

What a 24 hours

Home with a cup of tea, and recovering from / delighting in everything that’s happened over the last day. It started with the gorgeously sung choral evensong at Croydon Minster – and realising again what a privilege it is to be called to serve the people and churches of the Area. Then this morning – the taxi arriving at 6:45 was less of a highlight, but celebrating the 8am eucharist at the College of St Barnabas was pure joy. The breakfast’s pretty impressive, too.

Then on to the Orpheus Centre. Thanks again to the students and staff for making me so welcome. So good to see somewhere which really respected the students (who all have disabilities of one sort or another) as adults. Not just a place focusing on creative arts, but a really creative place.

There had to be one parish visit during the day – that is where the heart of the Church of England beats, after all. St Mary’s Reigate is doing the business is one of the many and varied ways that the Church of England offers. Great to get to know a bit about the parish (and to play ‘it’ with the children at the school). Looking forward to enjoying sharing the life of the other parishes across the Area.

Not done yet, by a long chalk … Then on to Croydon College, to meet the chaplaincy team and the Principal – such challenges, and opportunities, in equal measure, and such a resource for the town and the borough. On the tram (everyone pretending to ignore this man in a purple dress) to CFER to meet with representatives of other faith communities in the area. Very glad to see that we all agree about the importance of working together for social cohesion and renewal. Now looking forward to sharing a little of the life of the different communities as I’m able to visit, and develop our relationships more.

Then, wonderful civic ceremony to finish with the Croydon mayor-making, and a bash to finish.

And the best thing is, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. Bring it on! (But let me have a good night’s sleep first.)